When I was a young mother trying to finish a Bachelor of Arts in English, I relished my Tuesday evening class at the local college.
The English department head, a kind woman with twinkling eyes and exacting standards, required us to read a book a week and come prepared to spend the first 30 minutes of class writing in response to a question she’d written on the whiteboard.
After we handed in our papers, we talked about what we’d read. Our books became a living experience as we grew together as readers. Soon we were not only able to identify themes in a text but to compare that text to others and to defend our thoughts while evaluating and absorbing the insights of other readers at the table.
“What is the significance of the ants on the burning log?” our professor asked the first week, when we’d just finished Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Wow. The question helped me grasp the meaning of the entire novel, even though I’d never heard of an objective correlative. Week after week Jodine Ryan developed us into careful readers who supported each other’s understanding by discussing what we read with others.
“I get it now!” a young woman exclaimed one evening, “These books are about life!”
Yes, literature is about life and we need its imaginative influence more than ever in these ideologically driven times. Reading is a humanizing corrective to news addiction; it takes us out of the echo chamber and the narrow confines of our own time and place and helps our hearts grow in empathy and contemplation.
I still miss that class and the experience of reading with others, where a book becomes a shared experience, part of a growing conversation about what makes life worth living.
But the advent of the podcast has come to my rescue. Bookish podcasts have become for me a consoling replacement for those Tuesday evening discussions. When I’m reading a book, I search for a conversation about it to expand my understanding. Those searches have helped me discover many podcasts I could easily recommend, even if I lack the time to keep up with every episode.
But if I could recommend only one, it would be Close Reads: a Podcast for the Incurable Reader.
This show is produced by the same folks who gave us The Daily Poem. I stumbled on Close Reads first actually, while writing a post on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The cast list has changed a bit since that first listen, but I’ve followed the show ever since because of the quality of the conversation and the sense of community this team has created.
Rather than a lecture-style show that can feel over the listener’s head, David Kern, Heidi White, Tim McIntosh and Shawn Johnson discuss manageable sections of great books, usually 3-4 chapters a week. Their intention, put forth at Close Reads HQ, warms my heart:
Our goal is [to] have empathetic and intelligent conversations about good books. We think of ourselves as enthusiastic curators and advocates—friendly bookish neighbors, if you will.
The “friendly bookish neighbors” obviously enjoy each other’s company and their laughter is infectious. Each is living the life of the mind and serving it in varied ways: Kern runs an independent bookstore in Concord, North Carolina. White is a therapist who teaches at a classical school in Colorado, McIntosh is a playwright and actor and Johnson is a classical educator. (More here.)
The interplay of their personalities makes the show work. Kern is a careful critic who loves the simplicity of Hemingway’s sentences and tires of long reads. White waxes eloquent on duty and desire and growth in virtue. McIntosh loves Russian literature and the theater. Johnson carefully probes the text while chuckling at each paradoxical turn.
I find Close Reads conversations so rich that I’m a paying subscriber so I can access the discussions on longer books as well.
My subscription has enabled me to revisit many of my all-time favorites (The Lord of the Rings, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina and, currently, C.S .Lewis’ Ransom trilogy) in their company, to read Heidi White’s columns exploring duty and desire, David Kern’s insights on the reading life and much more.
And Close Reads nudges me to diversify my reading list. Although I don’t quite have time to fit every book on their list into my own reading, I’m always grateful when I do, and books I might not otherwise have read have become favorites including as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ernest B. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, and Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev.
The annual episode where the hosts discuss their favorite reads of the past year is another favorite. I’ll hear about more reads on nature, psychology, history and more literature than I could ever keep up with, but that only inspires me to keep on reading…and finding people who love to talk about books. I also appreciate the community Close Reads has built on Facebook and Substack (literary brackets during March Madness included) and the way the team builds each year’s reading plan with input from their listeners.
Close Reads conversation reveals truth about our times simply by discussing great books. “We don’t need one more person pushing ideology on Facebook,” Heidi White declared once while discussing George Orwell’s 1984:
“We need more people making dinner for their families…Go and be human!”
It’s outbursts like this that I love most about Close Reads. Literature lures us away from social media and reminds us that we won’t be happy unless we “go and be human.”
We are created to savor food and drink, beauty and contemplation, friendship and conversation. We are meant to pray and worship in community, to read Scripture and talk about what makes life worth living together.
So if you’re looking for bookish conversation and haven’t found that perfect reading community, give Close Reads a try. You might want to peruse last year’s reading list and just pick a book you’ve always wanted to read anyway, and listen to the Close Reads discussion as you go.
I’m betting that like me, you’ll soon find yourself looking forward to each new episode and you’ll leave it with hope renewed that you’re not the only one, book by book, pursuing wonder and beauty.
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You might also enjoy these Close Reads inspired posts:
- Graham Greene Reminds us that Hate Is a Failure of Imagination
- Poetry’s Penetrating Power in Five Minutes with The Daily Poem
- Fiction, Politics and Spiritual Physics: Sparrowfare’s Most Surprising 2021 Reads
- Fiction, News Addiction and the Genesis of Gender: Standouts from a Reading Year
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I miss Haley Stewart and Christy Isinger’s Fountains of Carrots Podcast, but episodes are still available, and have helped me understand Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Sigrid Undset, and Wendell Berry, among others. As a member of the Word on Fire Institute, I do get to read in a wonderful online book club led by Haley herself. See Club 451: Don’t Burn these Books! Read them with Word on Fire!
Do you have a favorite bookish podcast? I’d love to hear from you!
Photo by Hatice Yardım on Unsplash.