*83 Plotz and Ferry on Zadie Smith

In this 2019 conversation, rebroadcast now to follow up RTB 82, Elizabeth and John try their best to unpack Zadie Smith’s take on sincerity, authenticity and human sacredness; the “golden ticket” dirty secret behind our hypocritical academic meritocracy; surveillance capitalism as the “biggest capital grab of human experience in history;” and her genealogy of the novel. If we had to sum the day up with a few adjectives (and we do):  funny, provocative, resplendent, chill, generous, cantankerous.

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*82 Zadie Smith in Focus (JP)


In this 2019 episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)

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On Rajiv Mohabir, the Chutney Wordsmith

by Patrick Sylvain

As dwellers of and in language, we know the power of words, but what we do not know—or perhaps we know but aren’t able to predict the particular form and effects of—is the process by which language forms a spectacular house of meaning, such as the poetic edifice that Mohabir has built. Mohabir’s poems house his queer identity, diasporic existence, and multivalent violence—they are a construction of precise imageries and innovative hybridifications of interfacing languages.  

When three erudite scholars sit in a studio around broadcasting microphones (or in a recorded Zoom meeting) to discuss books and the ideas conveyed in them, the conversation is likely to be uplifting, edifying, and surprising. Surprising because there is always a new twist, a new angle, a new intersection where the exchange of ideas divulges new means of un-silencing the past in ways that even the author might not be fully aware of. Mohabir indicates (after a series of probing questions and observations by John Plotz and Ulka Anjaria) that: “I was expert at amnesia, in that, I didn’t know what was lying latent in me until I started to dig away.” Such is the process of meaning-making, of excavating knowledge, or simply having an excellent conversation with probing questions around a fascinating subject—in this case, Rajiv Mohabir’s well-seasoned poems. Mohabir’s cross-linguistic facility (as John Plotz described it in their conversation)  is a form of creolization where he inhabits deeper into the various tendrils of colonial and “subaltern” languages.

Arrival of East Indians in Suriname, Tropenmuseum

Listening to literary critics John Plotz and Ulka Anjaria as they interviewed the poet and chutney verbal mixer, Rajiv Mohabir around his electrically meticulous poems, was simply a delight. A gastronomical feast of poems was served with hybrid blisses where “turmeric lips bow to the ground” (Cutlish, 36), despite the fact that Mohabir’s ancestors were brought up in a land where “Colonization still erases our memories” (Cutlish, 38). The speaker in the poem “Offering” informs us that “In the land of erasure, I run myself clean / touch my lips to the bottle as I drink” (Cutlish, 37). Through various forms of consumption, memorization, re-memorization, and reverencing, the poet or the speaker of the poem offers us an arresting last line: “I worship foremothers. I eat the bird’s wild heart” (Cutlish, 37). Worship and eating are both consumptive and nourishing acts regardless of how each is done. I eat the bird’s wild heart” (Cutlish, 37). Worship and eating are both consumptive and nourishing acts regardless of how each is done.

Ortolan

Rajiv Mohabir first grabbed my attention after I read his 2016 poetry collection The Taxidermist’s Cut. What a clever and powerful title, I thought! As I began reading some of the beginning poems in the book, I found myself leaning against a bookshelf at Raven Bookstore in Harvard Square, re-reading the following lines several times from the poem entitled “Ortolan.”  The Ortolan is a bird that I always had a particular curiosity towards–it was considered a delicacy by members of the French aristocracy, who delighted their palates with exotic selections:

Take the bird alive and blind it.

 Keep it in a windowless room,

 or if there are windows, board them up.

It’s important that no light gets in         

The beauty in the precision of the language, the concrete image system coupled with the couplet as its stanzaic form, creates the illusion of a perfect pairing. Yet, there is a violence running through this poem that creates a sense of disbelief and pleasure—a desire to know more. A desire to enter the lightless room to see the blinded-bird and to understand this peculiar ritual.  Is the poem really about a bird, an Ortolan? Of course not, the poet is too clever. The form of the poem, particularly the content of the first octosyllabic couplet, signals an epigrammatic presence in the hand of a cunning poet. I braced myself for the twist, for the elemental metaphorical surprise that the bird is being used for concealment and discovery. Sure enough, it arrives 8 couplets later:

Hide your gluttony from the god

with hungry dog-eyes who envies,

our nocturnal commotion. Taste the burst

of liquor-flowers from the lungs

on your tongue. Taste the entire life

in the dark. Taste every man

who has ever put me in his mouth.

                                    (“Ortolan”, 2017: 8)

Ship carrying indentured workers from India

After I read and reread that poem I knew I had to purchase the book (The Taxidermist’s Cut) and follow the writings of Rajiv Mohabir. A poet who can create envy from a god as a result of blissful nocturnal commotion while offering semantic terror, is a poet that I ought to follow. I have since found myself completely drawn to his work.

The edifying conversation between John Plotz, Ulka Anjaria, and Mohabir reinforces my interest in him as a writer as I enter or re-enter into his work.  To my utter enjoyment, both Plotz and Anjaria zoomed in on the first full poem of Rajiv’s 2021 collection, Cutlish. The poem, “The Po-Co Kid” (and the collection in general), displays, as John Plotz remarks, the “neological exuberance” of Rajiv’s writing. “The Po-Co Kid,” or the post-colonial kid, reveals the witty mind of a semantically agile poet—a poet who is fully engaged with history, myths, and post-colonial entanglements. In reading that poem, my mind kept looping around a very arresting line: “I clip my yellow nails at dusk.”  Only a very attentive poet could offer such vivid imagery with temporal and corporeal specificities in order to construct deeper meaning that is situated between myth and personal defiance. The prohibited act of cutting one’s toenails at dusk is violated by the speaker of the poem so that his position of otherness could be queerly present with a cutlish and chutneyed stance. As the speaker of the poem emphasizes: “Let’s get one thing queer—I’m no Sabu-like sidekick, / I’m the main drag” (Cutlish, 5).  Defying Gayatri Spivak’s famous dictum, Mohabir, as a descendant of subalterns, does speak as he is “dreaming up a khuli (coolie) future”, and has provided room for his Aji (grandmother) to speak as well.

Callaloo prepared and displayed by Petra Lapiste of carifrique.com at her Trinidadian cooking event in Yokisuka, Japan, 29 January 2012. Photographed by Shivonne Du Barry. In Trinidad, “callaloo” is a synonym for creolization.

                                                                                                                                                                     

Patrick Sylvain is a Haitian-American educator, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, social and literary critic, and lead author of Education Across Borders (Beacon Press, 2022). In the Fall, Sylvain will serve as Assistant Professor in Global/Transnational/Postcolonial Literature at Simmons University.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

*81 David Ferry, Roger Reeves, and the Underworld

Since the original airing of this episode in June 2021, Roger Reeves’ second book Best Barbarian was published by W.W. Norton, and the paperback edition of David Ferry’s translation of The Aeneid was published by the University of Chicago Press.

Their tongues are ashes when they’d speak to us.

David Ferry, “Resemblance”

The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from heroes (Gilgamesh, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas) and poets (Orpheus, Virgil, Dante). Some come down for information or in hopes of rescuing or just seeing their loved ones, or perhaps for a sense of comfort in their grief. They often find those they have loved, but they rarely can bring them back. Comfort they never find, at least not in any easy way.

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Retelling and Balancing: Circe’s Journey from the Margins to the Center

Abigael Good

Parmigianino – Circe and the Companions of Ulysses

Madeline Miller has made a name for herself by retelling Greek myths;  she calls it literary adaptation or mythological realism. Her 2012 debut novel The Song of Achilles (Orange prize winner), retells an episode from the Iliad. Circe, published in 2018, is a retelling and expansion of the Odyssey from the perspective of Circe.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a witch who lives on the island of Aiaia and turns visitors into beasts. She traps Odysseus’s men this way, but with his cleverness and help from the gods, Odysseus himself evades her tricks, frees his men, and wins her over. She is an important ally, telling him how to visit the underworld and return home. As the introduction to the RtB conversation with Miller puts it, though, she only has a “bit part.” Reflecting on her approach to retelling Circe’s story, Miller tells RtB, “I do feel like it’s a corrective in the sense that it’s a balancing […] We’ve had three thousand years of the male heroic tradition. Can we just pull on that a little bit, and bring the female voices up?”

Retellings are intensified stories. When you read a retelling, you read at least two stories at once, like the doubled vision of blurry eyes. Because of this, I was fascinated to see that Circe in Miller’s retelling has a similarly doubled vision of herself. She constantly sees herself as men see her, constantly hears her story as a man would tell it.

“I could imagine the stories he was telling of me, humorless, prickly, and smelling of pigs,” Circe says after sending Hermes away from her island. She is well aware of the stereotypes she inhabits, steps around, plays into and is forced into. They have become the lenses through which she views herself, and therefore limit the ways she can imagine herself being. She is haunted by the way others will tell her story.

Continue reading “Retelling and Balancing: Circe’s Journey from the Margins to the Center”

79* Madeline Miller on Circe (GT, JP)


In this rebroadcast, John and Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (an occasional host and perennial friend of Recall this Book) speak with Madeline Miller, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Circe. 

They discuss Circe’s place in Greek mythology and in a retelling of the Odyssey “from below” or “from the side,” the concept of “mythological realism,” and the influence of The Once and Future King on Madeline’s writing. They touch too on the sweet family aspects that show up in Homer, and on Odysseus’s changing reputation throughout time. Madeline has two totally unexpected recommendations in our Recallable Books section.

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Twilight, Tolkien, and the Problem of Immortality: On (The Contemporary Answer To) Fairy Stories

Cassie Schifman

As I grapple with this week’s rich walk around fantasy with Anna Vaninskaya, I’d like take a break with my favorite national pastime: Vampire Baseball.

When Stephenie Meyer’s first Twilight Saga entry made it to the big screen in Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008), it dutifully included a rendition of the vampiric Cullen family’s supernaturally enhanced baseball game. The film sequence – affectionately nicknamed Vampire Baseball by fans – diverges slightly but significantly from its novel counterpart, depicting the game with a certain conscious absurdity that never devolves into self-parody. Everything from the soundtrack’s bombastic guitar riffs to the rapid, disorienting cuts offer a high-octane viewing experience unmistakably out of step with this strange permutation of what Immortal Teenage Heartthrob Edward Cullen drolly identifies as “the American pastime.” Indeed, something more complicated lurks beneath the surface of Hardwicke’s ballgame. Unlike earlier scenes that allow the Cullens to credibly perform normalcy and mortality in front of protagonist Bella Swan, the Vampire Baseball sequence highlights the conspicuous traits which remind her that her newfound friends are neither normal nor mortal at all.

Continue reading “Twilight, Tolkien, and the Problem of Immortality: On (The Contemporary Answer To) Fairy Stories”

77* Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson (EF, JP)

John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson in this rebroadcast of a 2019 Recall this Book conversation. Her Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia both relates the history of Polynesia, and explores how histories of Polynesia are constructed.

Tupaia's_map,_c._1769
Tupaia’s map

The discussion considers various moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the moment ijn 1976 when the Hokule’a‘s traveled from Hawaii to Tahiti in a triumphant reconstruction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding. Thompson has fascinating thoughts on how the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.

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Land-Grab Universities and Me

by Anik Chartrand

As an indigenous person, listening to “Land-Grab Universities” (Recall this Book 76) made me reflect on my own education–acquired from a land-grant institution. It was both sobering and stimulating to consider how I profited from a university whose historic and present-day rhetoric on land-grabbing, land acknowledgement, and land-use is a continued support for the settler colonialism project in the U.S.

The episode unfolds from Robert Lee and Tristan Athone’s project, “Land-Grab Universities,” a High Country News investigation into how the United States funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous Land. He explains that under the Morrill Act of 1862, colleges were built across the U.S. to teach branches of learning related to agricultural and mechanic arts to foster agricultural production. States received parcels of land to build their colleges on but also received land beyond the campus grounds to lease and sell for fundraising efforts. But before these states could be given parcels of land to sell, the federal government violently seized lands from Indigenous people – nearly 11 million acres of land from 250 tribes, bands and communities.

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76 Land-Grab Universities with Robert Lee (Jerome Tharaud, JP)

John and new host Jerome Tharaud (author of Apocalyptic Geographies) learn exactly how the growth of America’s public universities relied on shameful seizures of Native American land. Working with Tristan Athone (editor of Grist and a member of the Kiowa Tribe) historian Robert Lee wrote a stunning series of pieces that reveal how many public land-grant universities were fundamentally financed and sustained by a long-lasting settle-colonial “land grab.” Their meticulous work paints an unusually detailed picture of how most highly praised institutions of higher education in America (Cornell, MIT, UC Berkeley and virtually all of the great Midwestern public universities) were initially launched and sometimes later sustained by a flood of cash deriving directly or indirectly from that stolen and seized land.

explore land-grab maps further here
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75* Sean Hill talks about bodies in space and time with Elizabeth Bradfield

This July 2021 conversation (the asterisk in 75* indicates a rebroadcast) features Brandeis poet Elizabeth Bradfield, and the poet Sean Hill, author of Blood Ties and Brown Liquor (2008) and Dangerous Goods (2014).

Sean read his “Musica Universalis in Fairbanks,” (it appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review) and then, like someone seated in an archive turning over the pages of aged and delicate documents, unfolded his ideas about birds, borders, houses and “who was here before me.”

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Roots and Ruins: On George Kalogeris’s Winthropos

by Dominick Knowles

In “Church Bells Will Signal,” the Greek poet and revolutionary Yiannis Ritsos mourns and celebrates the oppressed and martyred during the fight for a liberated Greece: “those ones are in irons, and those others are in the earth. // The earth is theirs and ours.” Although not a “political” poet in the conventional sense, Ritsos helped reclaim the totality of Greek history in service of social struggle, imbuing even his most innocuous lyrics with the specter of solidarity––a subversive practice that got his work banned several times by Greek authorities.

George Kalogeris is also not a “political” poet, but, like Ritsos, his attention to poetic speech emerges from a place of deep struggle and historical memory. His 2018 collection, Guide to Greece, borrows its title from the 2nd-century AD travelogue by Pausanias and charts the intersections of ancient and modern Greece. The decision to poeticize Greece, of course, has a long and uneven legacy in western thought. In the works of non-Greek writers like Michel Foucault, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Penn Warren, their investigations into the ancient world serve mostly to enrich or supplement their own philosophical-poetic development. For many of these writers, “Greece” loses all historical specificity, becoming a metonym for the “west” in its infancy. Greek myths, political forms, and cultural practices are instrumentalized indiscriminately; they gain meaning largely as the foundation of Euro-American culture. Reading, Foucault’s late engagements with ancient Greek poetry, one might not realize that Greece’s history continued past the fourth century B.C.

Continue reading “Roots and Ruins: On George Kalogeris’s Winthropos”

73 Teletherapy with Hannah Zeavin (High Theory Crossover, Saronik)

Crossover Month at Recall this Book ends with a glance sideways at the doings of our pals Saronik and Kim of the delightfully lapidary podcast High Theory. Refresh your sense of them with Recall this Book 52: they joined John to showcase their distinctive approach, taking as their topic “the pastoral.” Or, just click Play without further ado to hear their thoughts on teletherapy, a concept that proves far more familiar, and omnipresent than we at RtB had realized. Take those omnipresent signs for the Suicide Hotline, for starters….

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72 Caryl Phillips speaks with Corina Stan (Novel Dialogue Crossover, JP )

Our second January Novel Dialogue conversation is with Caryl Phillips, professor of English at Yale and world-renowned for novels ranging from The Final Passage to 2018’s A View of the Empire at Sunset. He shares his thoughts on transplantation, on performance, on race, even on sports. Joining him here are John and the wonderful comparatist Corina Stan, author of The Art of Distances: Ethical Thinking in 20th century Literature. If you enjoy this conversation, range backwards through the RtB archives for comparable talks with Jennifer Egan, Helen Garner, Orhan Pamuk, Zadie Smith, Samuel Delany and many more.

Continue reading “72 Caryl Phillips speaks with Corina Stan (Novel Dialogue Crossover, JP )”

Jennifer Egan, Reverberator

By Paige Eggebrecht

This essay first appeared on the website Novel Dialogue, our partner podcast for this month’s episodes, and is reprinted by permission, with our thanks. If you like what you read, head over to Noveldialogue.org to read and hear more.

“The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon.”

In last week’s RtB, Jennifer Egan speaks of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747) and wonders at the 18th century author’s ability to sustain a creative exploration over “many thousands of pages.” At this prompting, I have been thinking a lot about novels that refuse to let you go. I’ll never forget how Cynthia Wall first introduced Clarissa to our graduate seminar: “you don’t read through Clarissa, you sink into Clarissa. The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon or being trapped in a web.” Her description was apt. I remember reading for hours at a time, making excruciatingly slow progress through densely packed, oversized pages with teensy font. But I was ensnared by the text’s progress, just as trapped and frustrated as Clarissa herself, and I couldn’t stop reading. I met Lovelaces and Clarissas in the people around me; my emails and texts took on an epistolary verbosity; I dreamt of being unheard, imprisoned, tricked, assaulted; I felt an unfamiliar impulse to write a will and research casket designs. 

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71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: fiction as streaming, genre as portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)

This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread.

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70 Recall this Buck 5: “Studying Up” with Daniel Souleles (EF, JP)

John and Elizabeth continue their conversation with Daniel Souleles, anthropologist at the Copenhagen Business School and author of Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss: Private Equity, Wealth, and Inequality (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press 2019). Dan’s work fits into a newish approach in anthropology of researching people with greater power and influence than the researchers themselves. That’s sometimes called “studying up” and Dan and Elizabeth (who’s writing a book about gold, after all!) have both thought a lot about it.

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Points of Comparison in Time: Methods in the Anthropology of Finance

by Aneil Tripathy

As a fellow anthropologist of finance, I especially enjoyed this month’s Recall this Book conversation with Dan Souleles.  His trajectory—from studying monks to private equity mavens!–proves anthropologists can help us make sense of the inequality that the world of finance produces. Building on comparisons with other powerful groups in the anthropological record, such as Inka accountants, Dan’s eye-opening book, Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss, and his subsequent research, emphasizes the diversity of groups within finance. He explores the particularities of private equity investors as well as theorizes on how to compare accounting across the anthropological record, from the present day to that of the Inka.

This analysis of diversity in finance is integral to my own research as an anthropologist of finance in the world of climate finance, a sector of financial markets promoted as financing/refinancing projects that have climate and environmental benefits. In my research, I study different forms of expertise and work amongst climate-finance practitioners: among them bankers, accountants, and policymakers.  Climate change itself is defined by the time horizons of our new Anthropocene era. Some may seem distant (when will the last amphibian vanish?) while others (2 degrees Celsius rise, anyone?) now loom terrifyingly near. In climate finance, geological climate time interacts with the profit-and-loss time horizons familiar from accountancy and Wall Street quarterly reports.  Understanding what type of time climate-finance practitioners focus on  turns out to be crucial to unpacking their assumptions—and their actions.

Continue reading “Points of Comparison in Time: Methods in the Anthropology of Finance”

69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on private equity (JP, EF)

In this installment of our Recall this Buck series, John and Elizabeth talk with Daniel Souleles, anthropologist at the Copenhagen Business School and author of Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss: Private Equity, Wealth, and Inequality (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press 2019). Dan’s work explores the world of private equity “guys” (who are indeed mostly guys) and the ways they are “suspended in webs of significance [they themselves have] spun” as Clifford Geertz puts it.

Further, he explores the ways we are all suspended in these webs through the immense buying and managing power of private equity firms. Private equity investors buy out publicly traded companies, often through enormous debt (which is why these deals used to be called “leveraged buyouts” or LBOs), manage the companies and then sell them. They argue they are creating value by cutting fat in management; typically workers bear the brunt of the debt while executives–and the private equity firm and lawyers and others servicing the deal–receive hefty payments.

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68* Martin Puchner: Gilgamesh to Amazon (EF, JP)

Book Industry Month continues with a memory-lane voyage back to a beloved early RtB episode. This conversation with Martin Puchner about the very origins of writing struck us as perfect companion to Mark McGurl’s wonderful insights (in RtB 67, published earlier this month) about the publishing industry’s in 2021, or as Mark tells it, the era of “adult diaper baby love.”

puchner

Aside from being a fabulous conversation about Martin’s wonderful history of book production through the ages (The Written World) this episode brings back happy memories of Elizabeth and John piling their guests into a cozy sound booth at Brandeis, the kind of place that’s utterly taboo in Pandemic America.So travel with us back to 2019 for a close encounter with the epic of Gilgamesh. The three friends discuss the different stages of world writing–from the time of the scribes to the time of great teachers like Confucius, Socrates and Jesus Christ, who had a very complicated relationship to writing.

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