The Joy of Non-Political Podcasts

picture-11Thanks to my Hawai’i-inspired decision to take a break from obsessive consumption of political news, this morning I enjoyed three wonderful podcasts that I would have otherwise missed.

While working out upstairs on the cross-trainer, I finished listening to a New York Review of Books interview with Christopher Ricks, author of an NYRB review of a new biography of the poet John Keats.  The interviewer, Giles Harvey, did a great job of drawing out Ricks’s wit and wisdom regarding the poet and the biography, titled Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography by Stanley Plumly.  (Click here for the Kindle edition, available for $9.99 compared with $16.27 for the hardcover.)  There were so many pearls to admire in the podcast.  One I remember is Ricks’s distinction between identifying with another person, which can actually be a selfish act of replacing that person with one’s self, and empathy or sympathy for another person, by which you consider the world from that person’s point of view while maintaining the person’s autonomous existence.  Ricks made the point that the genius of Keats’s poetry, and even more so his letters, was empathy.  He also said that if forced to make a choice, he would choose Keats’s collected letters over his poems.   I’m sure that Ricks’s written review will be a pleasure to read when it hits my Kindle through the miracle of Instapaper.  But the podcast dimension adds so much, because of the ability to hear the reviewer’s gravelly, joyful voice and to enjoy the informal, exploratory nature of the conversation which Giles Harvey hosted.   You could never take 20 minutes for such a thing even on NPR, so this is an example of the great new wonders that podcasting has to offer.

My next treat, also from the New York Review of Books podcasts, was Helen Epstein on prison reform. Again, part of the delight was due to the understated skill of the interviewer, Eve Bowen, who has perfected the art of asking very short, very clear questions.  The gist of Epstein’s piece in the June 11, 2009 issue, titled “America’s Prisons: Is There Hope?” is that the U.S., with five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates, may finally be on the verge of taking up fundamental prison reforms.  The piece is a review of Dreams from the Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice to All by Sunny Schwartz, with David Boodell. There is a Kindle edition, but I will not link to it, because Scribner Ebook has violated the $9.99 price standard and is charging $14.40 compared with $18.72 for the hardcover.  Ridiculous.  Click here for the podcast audio.

After my workout, I drove to a meeting that I attend each weekday morning. It’s a 20-minute drive, and my pre-Hawai’i routine was to listen to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” hoping for some red-meat political coverage confirming my view of the world as correct and that of those opposing it as sadly mistaken and headed soon for the Great Unmasking.  Instead, I plugged my iPhone into the cassette adapter and listened to Dave Winer and Jay Rosen‘s latest conversation in their truly remarkable “Rebooting the News” podcast.

Winer and Rosen are edgy and insightful as they ponder the revolution under way in journalism.  In this latest episode, Rosen, a faculty member at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, suggests that journalism is like a software program that enables citizens to use their democracy effectively.  Winer, who pioneered podcasting itself, as well as a few other major advances such as RSS syndication and blogs, immediately saw the genius of this comparison, because programmers are always struggling to make the user interface easier for real people to use.  He offered empathy as a key quality, which of course reminded me of the Keats podcast.  And on it went, one voice and one idea leading to the next, filling my morning up with new ways of seeing the world and renewed appreciation for podcasting.

Click here for audio of the Winer/Rosen episode.

I’m sure I will resume my consumption of political fare at some point.  But I’m enjoying the new bandwidth that’s opened up in my mind thanks to this pause from the daily ideological fray.  Not to mention the pleasure of returning to blogging on perhaps a daily basis.

If you’re a podcast fan yourself, I’d love to know what you’re listening to, so please feel free to offer some suggestions in the comments!

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