A Public Vice
on the temptations, and joys, of blathering into a microphone
Like most men, I first did it with a friend. I thought, there isn’t anything better to do this weekend, and it probably won’t go anywhere long-term. I wanted to choose the right friend, of course, to have someone close not only emotionally, but in terms of what we both enjoyed. As often happens, we talked way too long not only before and after, but somehow during as well. That trend doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, either. We get together every three or four months and it’s always talk talk talk. Sometimes, I wonder if I shouldn’t pay someone else to help us liven things up. All the same, it’s been five years since that first weekend, and I’m happy to say: I’m still recording podcasts.
Now, to begin, it’s almost impossible to tell someone you have a podcast. Unless they know you from a podcast because you are famous for podcasts, even famous in an approachably niche way, there is essentially no line of conversation that will end with someone like me voluntarily saying, “Oh, yeah, I have a podcast.” There’s something about the lingering, deracinated authority of radio floating around the word “podcast” that makes the phrase sound like you’re humble-bragging. Humble, of course, because having a podcast is as easy as having a free weekend, a microphone, and the exact right amount of alcohol.
In fact, there’s nothing inherently impressive about recording a two-hour conversation every three to four months with one of your best friends, but because everyone listens to professional podcasts, and mostly because of Serial, the word is associated with institutional success just enough that people might be impressed, which is something I always want to avoid. “You have a podcast?” Surprise and shock, fine, but uniformed awe is a trap.
In 1931, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture titled, “A Secret Vice.” (I promise this is relevant.) The vice in question was his hobby of constructing imaginary languages. “But Tolkien!” you’ll want to cry in surprise, “That’s like the least secret thing about you!?” To be fair to John Ronald Reuel T., he gave the lecture some six years before The Hobbit was published. His penchant for Elvish, Dwarvish, and worse was as yet untied to literary or commercial success. He was a respected philologist, not a world-conquering fantasy novelist.
In our recent podcast on Ursula K Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, my buddy and co-host Bill Coberly name-checked “A Secret Vice,” which I’d heard of a bunch but never actually read. Tolkien opens the essay coyly—in fact, he goes on for several pages without naming the “secret vice” at all—which is meant to mimic the way imaginary-language practitioners keep their hobby to themselves. I felt convicted. “Do you have a podcast?” Yeah, yeah. Sure. I can also beatbox. Let me beatbox for you, a thing less embarrassing for me than talking about my podcast.
What’s ridiculous, though, is that my secret vice is a very public vice. I may worry about sounding a certain way when I say, “I have a podcast,” but that seems drastically less pompous or amateurish or pick-your-poison than, I dunno, actually having a podcast. Whatever damage I can do with my mouth I probably do every three to four months at length and recorded for all posterity.
So why do it? What is the point?
Again, Professor J. Ronald R. Tolkien: “Individualistic as are the makers [of imaginary languages], seeking a personal expression and satisfaction, they are artists and incomplete without an audience.” There are many itches a podcast can scratch, and many that The Big Read scratches for me. I’ve read books I might not otherwise have attempted, or finished, especially given the busyness of my full-time job, my family, and the demands of my best friend, Netflix. I’ve reimagined and expanded a connection with one of my oldest and closest human pals, the two of us united by a common project that gives us an excuse to keep prioritizing each other no matter how difficult that can sometimes be. But Tolkien, again, has my number (and Bill’s): at least some part of us likes to perform.
To be clear, I’m not sure we’re great podcasters, or that we’re essential to the literary podcasting landscape, but I think Bill and I provide a unique entry into what can sometimes feel like inaccessible works of prose. That’s a bit high-flown, but our gimmick—we read books over 500 pages—is completely in line with our personal tics. We like big books, basically. And, in general, we cannot lie. And I bet you other brothers can’t deny, that when a book walks in with an itty bitty text and a binding in your face, you get—as I say—high-flown.
Before a podcast entered our life, Bill and I were performing for each other in phone conversations about books and movies and more, or maybe performing to no one. Our friendship has always partly been founded on performance, sometimes from a stage but more often in conversation, a high-energy sociability that we don’t share with everyone, or at least I don’t. What’s more, it’s an energy that feeds on cultural artifacts. In some ways, we’re like high school theater kids1 who grew up and decided we needed a local stage. A podcast is the internet’s local stage.
Whatever the case, the podcast formalized an aspect of not only ourselves, but our friendship, and I don’t simply mean “made it official.” What our podcast has done is given our connection a form, a shape, a presence. Do you have jam sessions with friends in private? Good! Get on a stage! A church stage, a bar’s stage, a backyard patio with friends. Artists, as Tolkien is right to suggest, need an audience.
If I’m still suspicious of podcasts, of my podcast especially, it’s because I prefer the concentration of writing. I prefer my own habits of mind when writing rather than when extrapolating, but I also generally prefer the results. Most TED talks could have been three tweets. Most Ken Burns documentaries are half a book.
Worse, we’re all supposed to be “content creators” nowadays, and I think that’s terrible. We all live out publicly what used to be private. We post, we vlog, we podcast. The very names of these activities—all nouns—are telling. Objects have become productions. It’s possible Bill and I have taken our private pleasure at connecting over books and made a parody of it for public ridicule.
But for all my kidding around, our podcast isn’t just us recording a conversation that would have happened anyway. We gave the project limits—the books we discuss must generally be 500 pages, and they’ve included titles like A Secular Age by Charles Taylor or Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West—and limits are always the backbone of creativity. Novels, poetry, movies, film, music are all incarnations of looser human instincts. Our podcast is meant to be the same, to enflesh a somewhat middlebrow pleasure into an intimate performance.
In conclusion, please never ask me about it. Although in the latest episode I did get Bill to sing.
I’m currently listening to Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone during my commute. I read The Woman in White years ago, and at one point I was hoping to become an expert in Victorian Gothic literature, except I kept failing to read much Victorian Gothic literature. The Moonstone isn’t too gothic-y, as it turns out, but I am enjoying how small the whole book feels so far. Even after a(n) (apparent) suicide occurs, the stakes are grounded in reputation and class-based shock. It’s great.
A detective novel that helped congeal detective-novel clichés for all time (in the UK and the US at least), The Moonstone’s central mystery is also hilariously slow to develop. There’s all sorts of textual reasons for this, I’m sure, but whenever I return to Victorian literature I’m always filled with a sense of how time must have weighed on the less-oppressed masses of previous centuries. We chatter endlessly about our endless distractions in the modern world, but reading Dickens and Collins and other 19th-century graphomaniacs is to viscerally understand that evenings were longer, even without electricity, and that Sunday afternoons lasted actual hours, rather than three to four episodes of whatever latest addiction we’ve scraped from the content barrel. To be fair, Collins was part of the Victorian content barrel, and books, like TV, became popular partly for their ability to lessen the drag of time. Even so, a good, old book is a different unit of the sun than a good TV show, and I don’t think that will ever change.
I love you all.
We were literally high school theater kids. It’s pretty much how we became friends.