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James Joyce’s 1914 collection of fifteen short stories, Dubliners, is righty considered one of the greatest literary achievements of Western modernity. But what is so original about these stories that begin with childhood, cover adolescence and adult choices, and conclude with a deeply moving reflection on our mortality? What life-changing experien…
 
“The good life” and “the American Dream “remain powerful animating principles in popular culture, politics, and also our individual psyches. I spoke with Professor Dora Zhang at the University of California at Berkeley who teaches a course on “the good life,” using mostly literary rather than philosophical texts. From Sophokles’s Antigone (441 B.C.…
 
Charlie Louth’s illuminating recent book, Rilke: The Life of the Work (Oxford University Press, 2021) examines why Rilke’s poems have exercised such preternatural attraction for now several generations of readers. The early 20th century German-language poet captured the experience of European culture irrevocably lurching into modernity, where an en…
 
Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice delights, charms and entrances reader since its anonymous publication in 1813. The Bennett sisters need to marry rich, for otherwise they'll fall into poverty and social disgrace. I talked with one of the great Austen experts of our time, Professor Wendy Lee of New York University, who has published widely on…
 
To learn more about the Haitian Revolution in fiction, I spoke with Professor Marlene Daut specialized in pre-20th-century Caribbean, African American, and French colonial literary and historical studies. Her first book, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865, was published in 2015…
 
Today we talk a lot about a need for genuine dialogue, and for conversations across partisan divides and differences. What is a true, authentic, and meaningful conversation? Martin Buber's landmark 1923 book, I and Thou, examines and also proposes how genuine dialogue can happen. The short book proposes that "I and Thou," and "I and It" are insepar…
 
Hannah Arendt's 1967 essay on "Truth and Politics" centers on the uneasy relation between truth-telling and politics. Lying has always been part of politics, Arendt says, but something shifts with the wholesale attack on our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and make-believe. How can we be committed to the truth when politician…
 
"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the order of angels?" This angsty cry opens poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies -- one of the greatest poetic masterpieces of all time that grounds us, modern beings, in a disenchanted, mechanized, and godless world. Is there a meaning to our lives beyond our immediate, material conditions that does not…
 
Kate Chopin's absorbing 1899 novel The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a married woman in New Orleans who questions her life choices, and seeks something else. What does she want? I spoke with Professor Rafael Walker, who has written and thought deeply about Chopin's writings, to find out whether Chopin's novel fits into the narrative…
 
The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest novels ever written and a masterpiece of American fiction. Midwesterner Nick Carraway spends a summer on Long Island where he is lured into the ultra-glamorous parties and social circle of his mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby. It is a tale of obsessive passion, reckless decadence, excess, and disillusionment, …
 
The first Asian American writer to publish stories in the US, Sui Sin Far could have “passed” for a white woman but during a time of intense Sinophobia, aligned herself with Chinese Americans. I spoke with one of the great experts on Sui Sin Far, Professor Mary Chapman, at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Beco…
 
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is the first known American Indian literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, the first known Indian poet, and the first known poet to write poems in a Native American language. A poet who wrote in at least two languages, navigated several cultures and expressed her pride of belonging to the Ojibwe (Chippewa) pe…
 
Recalling the great confessional narratives from St. Augustine to Jean Jacques Rousseau, from Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass to Henry Adams, James Weldon Johnson's 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, relates the emotionally gripping tale of a mixed-race piano prodigy who can pass for white in turn-of-the-century America. F…
 
To understand Poe, inventor of the detective story, tales of terror, and progenitor to Hitchcock, Stephen King and much of Netflix's programing, I spoke with J. Gerald Kennedy who's written award-winning books on Poe in American culture. I asked Professor Kennedy about his favorite stories and how to understand Toni Morrison's famous declaration th…
 
Something different today: I was lucky to speak with writer Doon Arbus about her debut novel, The Caretaker, published September 2020 by New Directions books. It's a spell-binding, intricate and haunting tale of a world-renowned philosopher's house museum filled with his collection of objects, and the mysterious man who becomes the museum's caretak…
 
Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre is one of the great love stories of all time, but it's also the story of a woman who speaks her truth even when this means risking everything she wants. Jane, an orphan raised in a cruel family and struggling to survive in a world where poor women have few chances, falls in love with dashing and mysterious Mr…
 
Marx has never left us. In our era of populism, political polarization, and the pandemic, concerns central to Marx such as economic inequality, the consolidation of power in the hands of the few, and the fate of workers are urgently discussed. How should we think about Marx today? I spoke with Professor Vivek Chibber at NYU who has published Postco…
 
Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was the novel that shocked, challenged, and inspired Victorian England with its tale of a beautiful young man who trades his soul, captured in a portrait, for eternal youth. I spoke with Professor Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University, whose biography Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, to see…
 
I spoke with Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat, about Dickinson's remarkable assuredness, her confidence, and her decision to spend much of her life secluded in her father's home in Amherst, Massachusetts. In this state of being on her own, Dickinson had intense, passionate and transformative relationships, including one with the editor, write…
 
Is "truth" a historical construct? Michel Foucault's work investigates this and other concepts. I spoke with Ann Stoler of NYC's New School for Social Research about Foucault to understand his investigations. How can we think of "truth" as something historically and culturally specific, rather than an absolute, unending value? Stoler's pathbreaking…
 
Novel laureate Albert Camus's 1947 novel The Plague is about the human response to extreme circumstances. For a long time the book was read as an allegory of people resisting fascism, but the plague never quite stays only a metaphor. I spoke with Caroline Weber, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Barnard College to discuss how brilli…
 
Why read books in dark times? Daniel Defoe, known to most as the author of Robinson Crusoe, published A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, about the plague that decimated London's population in 1665. The gripping account is presented as a survivor's story who confronts his world being ravaged by an invisible and extremely contagious disease. But D…
 
Immanuel Kant's short 1784 essay, "What is Enlightenment?" clearly lays out what the Age of Reason means: that we are encouraged to think for ourselves to claim our freedom. I spoke with one of the great experts on Kant's philosophy, Professor Béatrice Longuenesse of NYU and the author of Kant and the Capacity to Judge, and I, Me, Mine: Back to Kan…
 
Should professors be held accountable for speech they make off-campus, on-line, and apart from their professional role in the university? Does academic freedom mean freedom of speech and what are the differences? I spoke with Professor Henry Reichman, who has served as Vice President of the American Association of University Professor, an organizat…
 
The Kafka most known today is a writer of existential despair, a futile search for meaning, and the 20th century's nightmare of humans trapped in inhuman bureaucracies or situations of terror. Liska explains how Kafka's short parables and prose conundrums offer a way out of the dilemmas of modern existence: the tribalism, fear of difference, and de…
 
A recent legal case about affirmative action was decided in favor of Harvard University's holistic admission practices. Is the fight over affirmative action over now? Professor Chin, at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC, explains what the legal ruling in favor of Harvard University means for higher education, for the future of affirmative action, and…
 
In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture that Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of our modern Supreme Court, called America's Intellectual Declaration of Independence. What does it mean for America, and us as Americans, to start thinking for ourselves? What does it mean to start our intellectual break from Europe nearly half a century after the …
 
Jean Toomer considered Cane the "swan song" of African-American folk culture rapidly destroyed by the industrialization of the South and the north-bound migration of African Americans during the era of Jim Crow. I spoke with Ismail Muhammad to understand how to read a book celebrated as a major achievement of the Harlem renaissance without pigeonho…
 
"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." The opening sentence of 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Roussau's Social Contract poses a central question for all of us. Why do we live under conditions of inequality, violence, dependency and general unhappiness (just look on twitter!) if society is made by us and for us? I spoke with Meli…
 
Dale Jamieson is a professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at NYU School of Law. Convinced of the totality of climate change, Jamieson addresses the threat with the lens of a philosopher. Climate change is a recognition that rationalism is, in fact, not the guiding principle of international politics; it is both a threat and a contributor…
 
How can the German response to the Holocaust teach us about America's legacy of the Confederacy? Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum and author of many books, including the recent "Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil", suggests that it's a way into talking about American racial politics and potentially a way forward. Uli…
 
Nobel-prize winner Samuel Beckett's plays, novels, poetry, radio plays and prose reveal our deepest humanity by stripping language to its bare essentials. He reveals how our bodies moving through space are far more than vessels for a roving consciousness. They contain a hint of transcendence which manifests itself as the human need for self-express…
 
Free speech and academic freedom are at the heart of universities, but in isolation these principles commonly lead to dead-end situations which little hope of progress. Robert Quinn, Director of the international NGO and network Scholars at Risk, offers a values frame that touches on five core principles for universities. Academic freedom, equitabl…
 
We Americans are defined by our Constitution and we cherish especially the First and Second Amendments. But like all texts, the Constitution can be read to empower and protect our individual rights but it can also be used selectively, self-servingly, and in bad faith. And the Constitution guarantees two things: our own personal liberties, unfettere…
 
America embodies the bold promise of assuring everyone's liberty to the greatest extent possible and has a history of imposing its will both internally and around the globe with great force. How can we make sense of the dual promise of personal liberation and rights for all and the expansionist idea to spread America's way of doing things around th…
 
The battles over free speech are also battles for the hearts and minds of students. Why else would people with little interest in the university want to address college students? Because the next generation will ultimately rule the world. I spoke with Yassin Nacer, a rising senior at UC Berkeley, about his understanding of the so-called free speech…
 
What's really happening on campus? PEN America cuts through the myths, the caricatures, and the misinformation. In response to President Donald Trump‘s March 2019 executive order on campus speech, PEN issued a hard-hitting report that offers concrete guidelines for how best to respond to incidents. I spoke with Jonathan Friedman, Ph.D., who is Camp…
 
Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery as a child in Boston, is the first Black person to publish a book in the US. Wheatley's status as the first African-American poet in the US is of great importance, and yet it is an ambiguous matter to assign her this role of being 'the first.' Poet Rowan Ricardo Philips talks about…
 
In August 2017 Laura Weinrib wrote: "Commentators have rightly observed that the ACLU has defended far-right speech since its founding, despite fierce criticism. But there is a common and mistaken premise in this analysis. It assumes that the organization has always believed, as it does today, that “freedom of expression is an end in itself.” We ta…
 
The philosopher Richard J. Bernstein met Arendt first in 1972, when he was a young professor and three years before her death. He explained to me why Arendt’s work should be read today with renewed urgency, because it provides illumination into the forces that shape our present. Instead of a dry academic exposé, I got a moving anecdote about his fi…
 
Why do populist movements, which exist on both the left and the right, attack universities? Is there any justification for their suspicion of elites who tell us what's true, how to live our lives, and how to solve our problems? What's the relation between populism, academia, and the ideal that everyone's opinion should matter, regardless of their e…
 
The ACLU defends your liberties - whether you're on the right, the left, and entirely off the political spectrum. The 100-year old organization has argued and won landmark decisions before the Supreme Court to defend individual rights. Is it right to put principle above all other consideration and offer legal aid to Neo-Nazis? Or are there factors …
 
What do we mean when we say "The First Amendment"? It's obvious: we mean the most robust protection of speech rights, religious liberty, freedom of the press, and freedom of association in the world today. Correct, says Eugene Volokh, absolutely correct. But it could change! Listen to this illuminating conversation with a leading expert on freedom …
 
How can universities allow more students from more backgrounds gain access to what continues to be the surest way of attaining economic success? How do different ethnic groups fare in college -- and what does it mean that some groups attain 'hypermobility' while others seem to lag behind? I spoke with Van C. Tran, who is Associate Professor of Soci…
 
Where does our country's deep commitment to free speech come from? Stephen Solomon researched the range of political speech before the adoption of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights to chronicle years of robust and often controversial speech. Solomon is the author of Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Spe…
 
Should the government intervene when there’s a speech controversy on campus? Or should universities be allowed to set their own rules, like other associations such as clubs, homeowner associations or churches? Jacob Levy of McGill University has written extensively about the tension between the idea that the state grants or restrict our liberties, …
 
Self-appointed watchdog groups rank colleges on free speech. Legislatures want to punish universities that don’t uphold free-speech in ways they define. Is there really a crisis? Are students less committed to free speech that earlier generations? Are people allowed to say what they want, or do faculty and students self-censor so they're not challe…
 
Free speech is hotly debated around the world today -- and will it be saved by the U.S. Supreme Court? Professor Eric Segall is skeptical about putting our faith and our fate in the hands of nine black-robed justices placed for a lifetime on the Court. He questions the outsized role of judges to overturn laws, which should only happen, he says, whe…
 
How can different democracies define free speech differently? In many democracies, speech is regulated differently : in the US hate speech is protected but not child pornography, political speech is protected but not defamation. In other democracies, Holocaust denial or incitement of racial hatred is not protected by the state. I spoke with Adrienn…
 
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