Capsule reviews, Aug 25: a few podcasts and a book on self-education

History of Byzantium – I’ve gotten very into Byzantine history lately, and there’s not as much out there in the English speaking world as you’d like. It’s shocking how good this is, how thoughtful, and how it mixes narrative with broader social and economic developments. Really entertaining and informative. The History of Rome is good, but this is better—one of the best history podcasts in existence.

History of Africa– There is nothing else like this out there. Popular history books (publishing in English and published in America) about Africa’s pre-colonial civilizations are pretty few and far between. As such this podcast is a major contribution—I contribute a substantial amount on Patreon every month. Start with the second season on Aksum—a civilization in the Ethiopian Highlands that rivaled Rome and Persia for size / influence and outlasted them both (it started in the pre Roman era and only fell in the 13th century). It’s stuff you can’t believe you’ve never heard before.

Don’t Go Back To School by Kio Stark— I’m always looking for books I didn’t know existed. This is a good example of one! I came across it while scanning the episode list of a literary podcast called Overdue. It’s a crowd-sourced book about ways to learn without going to school—it consists of interviews with a bunch of people who prioritized learning outside of school (and the ways their learning relates to their job and ability to earn a living).

My story isn’t really akin to anything in the book. The thing about being a writer is that virtually every writer you care about, whether it’s Virginia Woolf or W.H. Auden or James Baldwin, engaged in a long self-directed course of study as they were in the process of becoming a writer. You CANNOT learn in school the kinds of things you need to write fiction or poetry well. You can major in English, but the kind of reading you do for that degree is useless for writing: nothing in the English degree allows you to understand the well-spring of truth or beauty. Nor does majoring in creative writing really help much: you can learn a few rules of thumb, but let’s face it, writing degrees aren’t very rigorous: writing ten poems a semester or three stories a semester and reading four or five books (which is about the workload of most MFAs) won’t do anything. That’s equivalent to roughly 1/10th the work you should be doing every half-year of your writing life. And the 100 books you’d read to get an English undergrad degree or the 300 to get an English grad degree are, likewise, only a fraction of the thousands of books you’ll need to read to become a writer.

Moreover, English degrees don’t prioritize books that have the most to teach a writer. Almost every English major nowadays will read FRANKENSTEIN, for instance, but few will read MIDDLEMARCH or MOBY DICK. English degrees prioritize books that are short and teachable.

So if you’re going to be a writer, and especially one of literary fiction, you’ll at the very least need to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Dickens, Milton, Balzac, Flaubert, and a few dozen other major writers on your own. There is simply no other option.

What’s fascinating, though, is how few writers actually realize this. What’s weird is writers will be like, I love Jhumpa Lahiri or George Saunders, and not realize…both of these writers did the reading I am talking about. It’s honestly a bit perplexing. Why would you not do the same things as the people whose writing you admire?

So if you were writing a version of this book for writers, it would be: you literally cannot learn this in school.

When you’re a writer, you’re reading in order to figure out the source of the aesthetic experience: where does it come from? What provokes it? How can I replicate it? You’re basically reading for pleasure, but paying ever so slightly more attention than the average reader does. It’s not that hard!

Anyway I’ve gotten off the topic of this book. I do like the book I will say. Sometimes I’ve thought about how good it would’ve been to have skipped college and just saved the money and lived somewhere interesting and read books for eight years instead of partying for four. But I suppose you need to GO to college to learn how silly it is.