A playlist of our times; How podcasts aid those in search of deep discussion
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 3 November 2009)

Melvyn Bragg of the BBC and three British academics were trying to explain the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer to me while I walked across midtown Toronto last week, my iPod bulbs tucked in my ears. This is the kind of work Bragg now does best. He's had a British TV career since about 1970, he's written 19 novels and in the House of Lords he's a Labour life peer, Baron Bragg of Wigton. Recently he's also found a new worldwide audience hosting the podcast version of In Our Time, which began life as a BBC radio program in 1998.

He's perfect for people who rely on their iPods for stimulating chatter. I'm in that audience and have been since 2005. Recently, my original iPod died of exhaustion and I replaced it with a gleaming blue iPod nano, tiny and gorgeous like other Apple objects. Naturally, it comes with tricks I didn't want and probably won't use. It has a voice memos facility, so that if I hatch a great idea when there's no pad and pen handy, I can record my inspiration, then play it back later.

Consider the energy that device must have consumed, the all-nighters up against deadlines, the arguments about making it more efficient and user-friendly. Think of the dumb ideas it's likely to preserve. But, that diversion aside, the new iPod's arrival made me realize how the world of podcasts has grown lately and how much I enjoy them. Podcasts, which barely existed five years ago, now function collectively as a wide-ranging, addictive, unpredictable sound magazine.

The BBC, CBC and National Public Radio now put out far more podcasts, on everything from literature to sports, than they did when I began to explore this world a few years ago. The New Yorker every month podcasts a story from its long history, always introduced and read by a current writer: Vladimir Nabokov, Mavis Gallant and James Thurber have lately spoken to me from my iPod. Scientific American issues a weekly account of developments in science and many newspapers (including our own dear National Post) broadcast sound versions of their content.

Selected Shorts, a series on short fiction, crops up every week with actors like John Lithgow and Hope Davis reading authors who range from Chekhov to Jonathan Safran Foer, from Conrad to Haruki Murakami. The New York Review of Books podcast, which started out running only interviews with contributors, has lately taken to carrying Frederick Seidel reading his poems and J.M. Coetzee delivering a passage from Summertime, his quasi-autobiographical quasi-novel.

There are stand-alone podcasts, unaffiliated with network or magazine. Dan Carlin, once known mainly as a political reporter, has become an amateur historian whose obvious enthusiasm for his subject attracts listeners to his regular podcast, Hardcore History. He sounds simpleminded at first but his love of detail eventually wins over many of us. He delivered an hour on Alexander the Great vs. Hitler (which of them was worse?) and in a series of four podcasts led us through the struggle in the Second World War between the Germans and Russians. He's the kind of amateur who can become obsessed with the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, dredging up enough material to persuade us that we should care about them as much as he does -- and, during his programs, we do.

As a genre the podcast favours the generalist, which may be why the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's program Philosopher's Zone feels rather too mild and tentative, for all its laudable ambitions. It wants to show how the thinking and teaching of philosophers plays into the concerns of all the rest of us, public or private; on its best days it puts philosophy back into daily life. So it deals with the intellectual quality of music (can it make us think?) by analyzing Beethoven's effect on listeners, describes the ideas that were rattling around in Gandhi's head when he wrote a long personal essay about his goals a century ago this autumn, asks an ex-Marxist what Karl would do about the current fiscal crisis and discusses the meaning in 2009 of "civilization," a term that was used with reverence a century ago.

Unfortunately, Philosopher's Zone deals mostly with specialists, one at a time, and they often sound anxious to protect the reputation of their subject, so anxious that they want at all costs to avoid overstatement. Committed to their belief that whatever they say should hold the weight of 17 footnotes, they carry moderation to an extreme, a grave danger in university work.

Melvyn Bragg avoids that trap. On each of his shows he weaves the ideas of three professor-experts into an unedited but convincing narrative, sounding like a friendly but sometimes bossy orchestra conductor. At age 70, Bragg remains the eternal student, ready to swot up on anything from Euclid to Machiavelli in order to deliver a coherent idea of an almost always difficult subject. (At some point he abandoned the limitations suggested by his title, In Our Time, but kept the title anyway.)

Whether he focuses his program on the plots that surrounded the death of Elizabeth I, the scandal of the Dreyfus affair or the second law of thermodynamics, he digs into every enticing corner. Dealing with Schopenhauer, Bragg and his colleagues of the day managed to explain, among other things, why he was so independent of universities (he inherited a fortune) and why he took such a derisory view of the grandest figure of the 1820s, G.W.F. Hegel (he thought old Hegel's tortured prose a sure sign of fraudulence).

Good as they were, Bragg and his colleagues couldn't keep me from humming along with them the song that Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers wrote for Pal Joey in 1940 as a satire of Gypsy Rose Lee, the stripper renowned for her intellectual tastes.

Asked what she thinks about when performing, Lee gives a sample: "Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night/Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right." That has always seemed to me one of the great tributes to a 19th-century philosopher and I tried to recall the other high-class names she dropped. Walter Lippman, William Saroyan, Salvador Dali? But for that I had to press "music" and go to the other half of my iPod.

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