There are approximately a bazillion podcasts out there, so it’s fair to wonder whether the world needs another one.
I say it does.
- Toni Morrison was right.
- Literature deserves better.
- We deserve better.
- Sushi and country music.
- Learning and Web3.
Toni Morrison observed, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Technically, Morrison’s use of the word must is a modal verb. It’s an indication of an obligation and not exactly a command. But I can’t shake the idea. To me it’s an imperative.
It’s true: there are a lot of podcasts out there. So? There are also a lot of songs, taco trucks, and software applications. Imagine the catastrophic loss if the next generation looks around and thinks: It’s all been done. Screw it.
Besides, there ain’t nothing (or if there is, I haven’t found it yet) like my new podcast: LIT AF.
I have loved reading my whole life. It makes me sad to know that so many young people think reading sucks just because they had a lousy introduction to the experience. When I taught high school literature, I felt humbled and honored every time a student thanked me for helping them see reading in a new way. I want to share that feeling with more people.
As you may be able to tell, I have also loved language, including profanity, my whole life. Books are full of sex, murder, racism, economic inequality, anger, and the real language that real people use to describe real feelings in real life. No one is above language, however informal or foul – the immortal Victor Hugo spent four whole chapters of Les Misérables on the subject of slang:
“But slang! What is the use of preserving slang? What is the good of assisting slang ‘to survive’?
To this we reply in one word, only. Assuredly, if the tongue which a nation or a province has spoken is worthy of interest, the language which has been spoken by a misery is still more worthy of attention and study.
It is the language which has been spoken, in France, for example, for more than four centuries, not only by a misery, but by every possible human misery.
I want to talk about the meaningful stuff in ways that make the classics worth reading but aren’t allowed in the classroom.
For that, we need a podcast that is Lit AF: Lit As Fuck*. (*A term I learned from an 11th grader.)
Literature is essential to the experience of being human.
In his book Sapiens,Yuval Noah Harari points out that story is the ultimate human competitive advantage. Our shared abstractions and fictions allow us to organize in large numbers that transcend regional dialects and even languages. Speakers of dozens of languages cheer at UCLA touchdowns and follow synchronized religious rituals all over the world, whether or not they understand the words being spoken.
Language itself isn’t that special – lots of animals use it. But human beings won out over every other species, including other hominids that were larger and physically stronger, because we can organize en masse around concepts like religion and sports teams and countries no matter what language we speak.
You can translate a novel into any language. And the universal message of the story transcends all of them. Love. Death. Loss. Some things we all share.
Stories actively connect us. Literature – any imaginative or creative writing that has artistic value and speaks to our innermost selves – is nothing less than magic.
Authors work hard for hours, days, weeks, months, years to conjure that magic and bring it to life. Their work wasn’t meant to gather dust on a library shelf. As Salman Rushdie put it, “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.”
We need a podcast that honors literature in a the deepest, most human way and keeps it alive.
“Teach it as literature” is the answer to a faculty lounge riddle: How do you make sex boring?
In a world that constantly competes for our attention, classic novels have lost. They’re written in a different language that can be hard to follow. The way they’re presented puts us to sleep. As a result, we are losing our ability to understand pieces of our own history, and with it, pieces of us.
We all share knowledge. How to farm. How to heal. How to swap out the fuel injection on a 1973 Datsun 280Z. We can’t all know or remember everything with the greatest degree of expertise, so thank goodness we have specialists: classical musicians, art historians, and chefs. Architects and engineers. Doctors.
If we fail to continue building on everything they learned, even (especially!) the mistakes they made, we lose part of the human record. We regress.
We think better when we have more information to think about and more practice on finding, selecting, analyzing, evaluating, and applying the information we choose to think about.
We think better when we share information and practices. Novels help, if only because we’re talking about the same thing, whether we agree or not. Sharing perspectives on the same story is much better for us than telling stories of our own making that don’t make sense to others who are making up stories of their own.
Plus, the one thing we can all agree on is that tomorrow can be better than today. No medium brings that into clearer relief than the novel.
Les Mis is a fine musical, but the book… holy shit. Victor Hugo’s Preface:
“SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there will be a need for books such as this.”
We need messages like this to be delivered by people who know what they’re talking about and have the guts to say so. When I was an undergraduate at UCLA, Professor Charles Berst stood on a piano and imitated Charles Dickens yelling at his characters late at night so loudly that neighbors called the police. It made an impression.
We need innovation in teaching and the arts just as much as we need it in our technology, economy, and natural environment. Humanity, creativity, and a sense of VOICE.
LIT AF is a statement. We can’t afford to forget our past, and we definitely can’t afford to dismiss it as boring just because we don’t understand it.
I think country music sucks. The problem, of course, is that there are many different types of country music, and, since I am a city mouse from Los Angeles and not a musician, I don’t actually know what the hell I’m talking about when I say country music sucks.
Our experience of a thing does not necessarily reflect a quality of the thing. It is inaccurate to call a book “boring” just because I feel bored when I read it. The book may or may not be well-written, but that’s a different conversation.
As I wrote to high school students on a course blog:
“Try to better understand the books you don’t love. Someone more experienced and knowledgeable than you thought they were worth reading; it’s your job to understand why. Turning up your nose isn’t an option unless you want to look like that spoiled kid who only eats fish sticks. Sushi isn’t for everyone, but you don’t have any business saying “ugh” unless you can (a) recognize the qualities of truly excellent sushi and (b) explain why the mouthful you just spit out isn’t it. As you may remember from the beginning of our exploration, the value of our opinions is a function of evidence and logic, not an inalienable right that others are obligated to accept because we are ‘entitled.'”
Ask any of my students and they’ll tell you: I lead from the front. I don’t ask anyone else to do what I’m not willing to try myself. I’m picking the first book – The Great Gatsby – but after that, LIT AF members will tell me what to read. (UPDATE: The second season of LIT AF has begun, and it’s Frankenstein. Spoiler: it’s a book about shitty parenting.)
We need a podcast that stretches our thinking through works of literature that have been hiding in plain sight.
On one level, the LIT AF podcast looks familiar. Recorded segments of audio (and maybe soon video). Got it.
But under the hood, LIT AF is a technology experiment. Listeners can use Web3 tokens to form a community. In addition to the usual perks, like commenting privileges, event access, and members-only discounts, anyone who buys a token can also participate in making decisions that directly affect the direction of the podcast.
Want to meet a particular author with me in a livestream conversation? Have a favorite book you want me to read next season? Head over to litafpodcast.com and become a member to unlock your voting privileges.
In true Open-Source Learning style, I’m exploring technology by working with it where everyone can see it. I’m excited to see how it goes! As always, I’m curious to know what you think, so please drop me a line and let me know.