Magazine | March 19, 2018, Issue

The Word’s New Home

(Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

No one reads any more, do they? You are reading this, evidently, but are you reading reading — sitting down, light on, concentrating — or just doing what I so often do, skimming? What was the last novel I read? The first two volumes of the melancholy Norwegian. But there are four more, untouched by me. In my youth I would have burned through all the suckers in a month. A friend of mine, a journalist no less, says he doesn’t read articles anymore, only headlines. Preach, brother. My printed subscription copy of the Broadsheet of the Resistance, which flops in the hall in front of my apartment every morning as a marker (like the blood on the doorposts in Exodus) that someone older than 60 lives there, might as well be an anthology of headlines for all the time I spend on it. Drudge was a visionary, cutting out backfill. Young’uns, standing in elevators, walking the streets, eating their meals, hunch over tiny glowing screens unable to tap out anything longer than phrases, and can tap out those only because they pad them with smiling or frowning yellow faces, or clips of reaction shots from 20-year-old TV shows. Where have the words gone?

One place they have gone is podcasts. Not biting into a pod of detergent and spewing it out before you die, that’s something else. But podcasts are the recorded Sermonettes on the Mount by which we receive information these days. Welcome back, Homer, we’ve got you booked through Burning Man, just tap your white cane up to the mic and start reciting.

My wife is beginning to write a book. Her editor is the son of a Nobel laureate, but that is Oldthink. Because he is a clever man who keeps his finger on the pulse, he has my wife recording podcasts even before the book is begun.

Once, when authors recorded publicity, we went to studios — not comfortable or well-appointed studios, we were only authors after all, but studios with boom arms and insulation foam on the walls. More Oldthink. Now your apartment is the studio, and the equipment comes to you.

My wife’s topic is the state of personal relations in an era of political controversy (how she came to think of such a thing, I cannot imagine). Part of her technique — she practices the talking cure — is to interview persons in relationships and ask them, When did your significant other’s exercise of the franchise make you want to reach into his or her mouth and pull out the esophagus? What happened next? (And, because my wife is a wise questioner, Why?)

The first couple who volunteered to be podcasted as well as interviewed comprised a 20-year-old English model (though at 20 his modeling career is winding down, so he has taken an exam to sell life insurance) and a 30-year-old mixed-race American woman who is a photographer. The podcaster was a bearded young man, midway between their ages. My wife and I could be their parents, maybe grandparents. Ever the hostess, my wife could not let people come to our apartment without feeding them, so we went to the liquor store beforehand and bought two bottles of Riesling. There was also food; as a Jew, she would remember what that was; as a Gentile, I recall only the wine.

The bearded podcaster was first to arrive. We live above an avenue with buses, roadwork, fire trucks, ambulances, drunks, madmen, and the long, not-withdrawing urban roar. I have filmed documentaries when the sound man stopped everything because an airplane was passing 39,000 feet above us. Oldthink, oldthink. Our podcaster checked out the sound quality in my wife’s office, and was good to go. At the last minute, he realized he had forgotten his audio card, but since the publisher’s office is only seven blocks away, he was able to retrieve it in a jiffy (the advantages of living in a city-state).

Next came our interview subjects. They live, of course, in the borough across the river. Our building in the omphalos has filled up with young people, but they are jammed four or five to a two-bedroom unit, and each pays a fortune for a slice of that; better maybe to go to the borderlands and suck up the commute. The podcaster wanted to interview each subject individually, to establish background information. While one spoke (he brash, she shy), the other sat on the living-room sofa, sharing Riesling and solid food with my wife and me. My role, though off-stage and uncredited, was vital. For the purposes of the podcast, my wife was the Talent, so it was important that she not wear herself out. So I swelled a progress, started a scene or two, and reminded her and the guest we were with to save it for the mic.

Preliminaries done, my wife and the couple disappeared to be recorded together. I swept up crumbs and checked the phrases on my tiny glowing screen.

After it was over and the subjects had left, the podcaster had only one note for my wife: When an interviewee is making a point, even if you understand it, don’t say so; rather give a (silent) glance to suggest, Interesting, say more. Silence, minus the glance, is classic Viennese talking cure, but my wife has always been too empathic for that. The point, for podcasting, is to get pure, recordable bits. My wife is a pro, she will hit her mark.

The whole show took three hours; it will be boiled down to 30 minutes. I will let you wait until it goes up to hear what the model and the photographer fought about and how they fared. Or wait until the book is published, to read. (Do buy it — no library borrowings, please.)

Maybe the podcast is the future of the word, from Let there be light through We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the hills. Stay tuned.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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