Smarty Pants

10/7/2022

#251: Fifty Years of Song

In 2019, Joy Harjo was named the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, becoming the first Indigenous American to receive the honor. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she is a member of Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Her unusually varied career has included painting, screenwriting, and playing the alto saxophone, as well as teaching and editing. Harjo is marking the occasion of her semi-centenary as a poet with two books: Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light, which collects 50 poems for 50 years, and Catching the Light, a meditation on “the why of writing poetry.” Her work stands at the crossroads, evoking both the deeply personal and the shared experience of generations, and in it we find Creek spirits and missing women, creation myths and truck stops. Through it all, her voice is unmistakable.Go beyond the episode:Joy Harjo’s Catching the Light and Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty YearsPeruse her back catalog of books and musicListen to our Read Me a Poem podcastTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
9/30/2022

#250: Ordinary Madness

There are so many things to fear in this world—water, choking, dark forests—and an equal number of things to obsess over—books, grief, things themselves. In The Book of Phobias and Manias, Kate Summerscale collects 99 such fixations, from the fanciful (hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, a fear of long words) to the debilitatingly real (acrophobia, a fear of heights). No matter if dressed in Greek clothing (koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons) or bluntly named (social phobia), these obsessions account for many of today’s most common anxiety disorders. But Summerscale’s case studies, spanning 14th-century France to the contemporary psychology lab, reveal that our obsessions’ historical origins—and our fervor for categorizing our differences—tell us an awful lot more about modernity than our evolutionary past.Go beyond the episode:Kate Summerscale’s The Book of Phobias & Manias: A History of ObsessionListen to our previous interview with Summerscale about The Haunting of Alma FieldingFear of the future is strikingly dramatized in Dorothy Macardle’s neglected Gothic tale The UnforeseenTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
9/23/2022

#249: Know Your Earworm

Why does your dad love bluegrass while your sister moshes to hardcore? Why do you still have a soft spot for that cheesy rock ballad you danced to in middle school? The question of why we like the music we like is as eternal as it is maddening. In This Is What It Sounds Like, Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas offer an answer. Today, Rogers is a cognitive neuroscientist and a professor at Berklee College of Music—but before that, she was Prince’s chief engineer for his 1984 album, Purple Rain, and remains one of the most successful female record producers of all time. She has spent decades learning to listen, and This Is What It Sounds Like is a primer for understanding the concept of our innate “listener profile”—the dimensions of a song that our brains respond to. The book is an invitation to tune into musical self-awareness, and a celebration of the music that makes us feel most like ourselves, whoever we are.Go beyond the episode:This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You by Susan Rogers and Ogi OgasListen along to all the songs in the book, including the ones sampled in this episodeJoin the global record pull“Meet the Shaggs” in Susan Orleans’s introduction to one of music’s strangest legendsPreviously in Listening 101 on Smarty Pants: learn how to love operaTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman. 
9/16/2022

#248: Baba Yaga Comes to America

Somewhere among the dark forests of Eastern Europe, Baba Yaga, the crinkled crone of Slavic folklore, lurks inside a timber hut atop a pair of chicken legs. She hops through the woods, doing good or evil or just her own thing, depending on whom you ask. GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, reimagines the folklore of Baba Yaga in a contemporary American setting. Estranged siblings Bellatine and Isaac Yaga are brought together, somewhat unwillingly, by a surprising and mysterious inheritance: a sentient house on chicken legs, named Thistlefoot, who once belonged to their twice-great-grandmother, and with whom they embark on a cross-country puppet tour. But a shadowy figure from a century ago is stalking them, bringing the horrors of the Yagas’ ancestral shtetl with him. Nethercott is a writer and folklorist whose first book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, was selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. She joins us to talk about the folktales and history that inspired her latest work. Go beyond the episode:GennaRose Nethercott’s ThistlefootCatch her on tour, with a live puppet show, this fallRead the short story “A Diviner’s Abecedarian”“Vassilissa the Beautiful” is one of the tales featuring Ivan Bilibin’s magnificent illustration in this collection of Russian fairy talesHear more Slavic folklore on our episode about the Snow MaidenTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman. The music in this episode is “The Hut on Fowl's Legs,” from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, performed by the Oslo Philharmonic with conductor Semyon Bychkov.
9/9/2022

#247: The Music of the Ancients

Imagine there’s a place where music exists as it was first created, thousands and thousands of years ago, a place where song and dance still glued communities together across generations. That place exists: Epirus, a little pocket of northwestern Greece on the border with Albania. There, in scattered mountain villages, people still practice a musical tradition that predates Homer. This week, we’re revisiting our interview with Christopher King, an obsessive record collector—and Grammy-winning producer and musicologist—who goes on an odyssey to uncover Europe’s oldest surviving folk music, and spins us some rare 78s.Go beyond the episode:Episode page, with R. Crumb’s original illustrationsChristopher King’s Lament from EpirusBuy LPs, CDs, or MP3s of Chris’s Epirotic collections, from Five Days Married and Other Laments to Why the Mountains Are BlackRead Christopher King’s Paris Review essay, “Talk About Beauties,” about the lost recordings of Alexis ZoumbasListen to A Lament for Epirus (1926–1928) by Alexis Zoumbas on SpotifyTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman. Other music in this episode graciously provided by Christopher King.
9/2/2022

#246: More Than a Mere Tastemaker

Despite the rampant success of books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, intellectual circles tend to look down on anything that sells itself as self-help. And yet, in a certain light, the most original form of self-help might actually be philosophy—an older and more respected genre, even, than the novel. So this week, we’re going back to the past and asking that old chestnut: what is a meaningful life? The Stoics are awfully popular these days, but the philosopher Catherine Wilson joins us this episode to pitch a different kind of Greek: Epicurus, whose teachings live on most fully in Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. For a few centuries, Epicurus was wrongly remembered as the patron saint of whoremongers and drunkards, but he really wasn’t: his philosophy is rich with theories of justice, empiricism, pleasure, prudence, and equality (Epicurus, unlike the Stoics, welcomed women and slaves into his school). Epicureanism advocated for a simple life, something that appeals to more and more people today with the return to artisan crafts, self-sufficiency, and, yes, the KonMari method.Go beyond the episode:Catherine Wilson’s How to Be an EpicureanRead A. E. Stallings’s recent translation of Lucretius’s On the Nature of ThingsOr read Karl Marx’s university thesis on Epicurus, “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Follow us on Twitter @TheAmScho or on Facebook.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
8/26/2022

#245: The Butler Did It

Long before the advent of true crime podcasts, 17th-century murder pamphlets sold like hotcakes in England, and dubious criminal “autobiographies” were sold at executions. On the eve of the 19th century, William Godwin published Things as They Are; or the Adventures of Caleb Williams, identified by this week’s guest, Martin Edwards, as the “first thriller about a manhunt”—and a blueprint for how detective novelists would go on to construct the whodunnit. Edwards should know. He’s the eighth president of the Detection Club and the author of dozens of crime novels (and about a thousand articles about other people’s mysteries). Now he has written A Life of Crime, the first major history of the genre in more than 50 years, distilling two centuries of crime fiction from around the world, from the Golden Age of Agatha Christie and company to the realm of contemporary Japan. Go beyond the episode:Martin Edwards’s The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their CreatorsRead an excerpt hereWe dare you not to snap up the entire collection of the British Library’s editions of Crime Classics, edited by Edwards, based on the covers aloneThree women stars of early crime fiction: Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835–1915; her 1862 book Lady Audley’s Secret was a “sensation novel” in every sense), Anna Katharine Green (1846–1935; her reputation as the “mother of the detective novel” began with The Leavenworth Case in 1878), and Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868–1947; Alfred Hitchcock famously adopted her 1913 novel The Lodger to the screen)Find a full suite of reading recommendations on our episode pageFurther evidence that our host has a crime show problemTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Stitcher • Google Play Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
8/19/2022

#244: Don’t Forget the Death Workers

Anglo-American attitudes toward burial have changed significantly over the past half century: today, most people choose to be cremated, and alternatives like natural burials and human composting are on the rise. Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, about the importance of getting your affairs in order, was a surprise bestseller, and American mortician Caitlin Doughty is but one of several popular YouTube personalities who speak about death. But largely absent from the conversations at so-called Death Cafes (coffee, crumpets, and the inevitable!) is any discussion of the people who devote their lives to caring for the dead. These death workers are the focus of Hayley Campbell’s new book, All the Living and the Dead. Campbell speaks to people doing jobs we tend not to consider: embalmers and executioners, of course, but also crime scene cleaners, mass fatality investigators, bereavement midwives, and others. What makes these people choose to surround themselves with death tells us a lot about what the rest of us lose when we relegate death to the shadows. Go beyond the episode:Hayley Campbell’s All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life's WorkRead more about the Order of the Good Death, an organization of funeral professionals working to change attitudes about deathYou can join the conversation at your nearest Death CafeWatch Caitlin Doughty’s series on your death rights (and listen to our interview with her about funerary practices around the world)Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman. 
8/12/2022

#243: When Science Is Not the Answer

In pursuit of the natural laws of the universe, human beings have accomplished remarkable things. We’ve outlined the principles of gravity and thermodynamics. We’ve built enormous machines to dig into the deepest parts of the Earth, to understand what happens at the shortest quantum distances, and equally large machines to take pictures of the most distant parts of the cosmos. Still, there remain a number of foundational gaps in our knowledge—gaps that have allowed some wild ideas to take root. Some scientists hypothesize that, with every decision we make, our universe forks into multiverses, that consciousness arises from the quantum movements of microtubules, that the universe itself is conscious, or that there is this cat in a box and not in a box at the same time. These ideas, and related big questions about the nature of the universe, are the subject of particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s new book, Existential Physics. In it, she argues that many of these far-out theories, put forward without evidence, are on par with religious belief. Physics, she contends, does not yet provide the answers to all of our questions—and it’s doubtful that it ever will.Go beyond the episode:Sabine Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest QuestionsAnd her previous book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics AstrayMore questions (and answers) on Hossenfelder’s blog, Backreaction, and YouTube Channel, Science Without the Gobbledygook (or, you can try your hand at parsing her scholarly papers)The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope are indeed impressiveFor another physicist’s perspective, listen to our interview with Stephon Alexander about his experience as a self-identified outsider in the fieldTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.