I’m finding it hard this week to write cheery posts recommending books. It’s hard not to be distracted with anxiety and fear. This blog is not political and especially now I don’t want to venture into that fraught territory. Many of my friends are telling me that they are finding it difficult to focus long enough to read a novel. (I noticed today that the New York Times Book Review didn’t review any fiction.) It may be easier to listen to books or podcasts, so I’m recommending Paul Holdengraber’s podcasts, below.
I’m a big fan of Holdengraber, a stellar interviewer. Holdengraber is able to pierce to the heart of issues and he encourages his interviewees to do the same. For fourteen years he directed “Live from the NYPL” and each interview I attended was stunning and memorable. In particular, his interviews with Edmund de Waal and Jhumpa Lahiri were transcendent. I was very sorry when he left New York for LA, but he has continued his extraordinary interviews in podcast form so I’m happy.
Lately, he’s hosting a series called The Quarantine Tapes, a weekday podcast where he calls someone for a half-hour discussion about how they are managing in quarantine. Among the people he calls are poets, architects, novelists, actors; a diverse group of thoughtful people. I just listened to the podcast with the poet Aja Monet, who spoke about the value of poetry and art in these times, but also the importance of standing up for our beliefs. Monet and Holdengraber talked about the lines from William Carlos Williams’ poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” A quote that bears reading at least twice. Monet also mentioned a quote from JFK: “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” Good food for thought.
In another interview, Dr. Jason Hill, an Emergency Dept. doctor in New York, talked to Holdengraber about his experiences with patients dying of the coronavirus without family and how painful that was for patients and staff. Hill wrote a Buzzfeed article about his experiences in the Emergency Dept. in late March and April. It’s worth reading. One of my meditation teachers just sent out an email about her mother’s recent death where she wrote: “Bearing witness to the process of death and dying holds a power that no words can describe.” She was lucky enough to be at her mother’s bedside.
On the home page of The Quarantine Tapes, there’s a description of the program that starts with a quote from Blaise Pascal, the mathematician and philosopher: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I’m not sure I agree completely, but it’s certainly a good discussion starter in these times.