152 episodes

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. A podcast from The American Scholar magazine. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.

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    • Books

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. A podcast from The American Scholar magazine. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.

    #151: In Search of the Good Death

    #151: In Search of the Good Death

    Caitlin Doughty is the death professional behind the Internet’s favorite show about death, Ask a Mortician, and founder of the Order of the Good Death, which works to overcome our culture’s anxiety about dying, grief, and the afterlife. She runs her own funeral home, Undertaking LA, which offers alternatives to traditional, formaldehyde-soaked approaches to burial. In her book From Here to Eternity, she travels the world in search of the good death, from Mexico and North Carolina to Japan and Bolivia, learning about the ways in which other cultures have approached the end of life. We originally spoke to her in 2017, digging in to the subjects of corpse interaction, alternatives to the casket, and what death means to her.


    Go beyond the episode:


    - Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity
    - Check out Landis Blair’s illustrations for the book on our episode page
    - Ask a Mortician all about coffin birth, ghost marriage, and the iconic corpses of the world on Caitlin’s YouTube channel
    - Read more about the Order of the Good Death, an organization of funeral professionals working to change attitudes about death
    - Virtually visit the high-tech Ruriden Columbarium in Tokyo, Japan with head monk Yajima Taijun


    Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.


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    • 25 min
    #150: Do You Believe in Magic?

    #150: Do You Believe in Magic?

    Magic has gotten a bad rap for the past few hundred years: in our haste to become rational, logical creatures of the Enlightenment, we’ve disavowed magic of all kinds (and burned a few hundred thousand women as witches along the way). Oxford professor of archaeology Chris Gosden wants to change the way we think about magic, starting with its definition: a connection with the universe that allows us to directly influence its workings. Gosden considers it the oldest and most neglected form of human engagement with the world, wrongly condemned by adherents of science and religion. His new book, Magic: A History, runs from the stones of prehistory to the apps on our smartphones to explore practices on every inhabited continent. What might we learn by considering the sentience of trees, or the connections between the living and the dead? Who is excluded from the hierarchies of religion or science? And might a 21st-century magic lead us to a better response to climate catastrophe?


    Go beyond the episode:
    - Chris Gosden’s Magic: A History
    - We covered the darker side of the practice in a previous interview with Ronald Hutton about witchcraft
    - Our host’s guilty pleasure is reading astrologist Chani Nicholas’s sometimes eery horoscopes
    - One of the most profound forms of magic still practiced today is found in the Aboriginal cultures of Australia, especially the concept of the Dreaming (much confused by Bruce Chatwin and valued today by art collectors)
    - Or consider herbalism, which has been put to use in kitchens from prehistory to today, and has already led to significant pharmaceutical developments


    Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.


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    Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes!
     
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    • 24 min
    #149: Quoth the Raven

    #149: Quoth the Raven

    What’s spookier than the Tower of London, home to the ghosts of queens and the rest of Henry the VIII’s enemies? How about the half-dozen black ravens that inhabit it—without which, as legend has it, the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will fall? Since there haven’t been dead bodies littering the Tower Green for centuries, someone has to keep the ravens alive—and that person is the Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife. As a Yeoman Warder, Skaife is one of the custodians of the Tower’s rich history and traditions, and he joins us to offer a bird’s-eye view of his life among the ravens. This episode originally aired in 2018.


    Go beyond the episode:
    - Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster
    - Read an excerpt about the birds’ daily routine
    - Follow Merlina the raven (with help from the Ravenmaster) on Twitter
    - For more scary tales, read ex-Yeoman Warder Geoffrey Abott’s book, Ghosts of the Tower of London
    - For photographs that Skaife says “come very close to capturing the true majesty and mystery of the birds,” see Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens series
    - Behold, the funerals of crows
    - For one of the “best books in the world on bird behavior,” according to Skaife, see Nathan Emery’s Bird Brain, and for dozens more recommended books on the Tower and its inhabitants, see the “Suggested Reading” section at the back of The Ravenmaster


    Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.


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    Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes!


    Music featured from Master Toad (“Dreadful Mansion”) courtesy of the Free Music Archive. Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
     
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    • 21 min
    #148: Meet the Dean of American Cooking

    #148: Meet the Dean of American Cooking

    If you’ve ever made a salad from tender greens picked up from the farmers’ market, slurped an oyster cultivated at a regenerative farm, or sliced into a hearty loaf of rye bread—then raise a glass of California wine to James Beard, the dean of American cooking. For more than 35 years and in nearly two dozen cookbooks, Beard swept aside stuffy imported notions of epicurean haute cuisine on the one hand and processed and freezer food on the other to reveal the real flavors that were available to American cooks: ham from Kentucky hogs, old-world loaves from immigrant bakeries, obscure Washington apples. As John Birdsall writes in the first biography of the chef in more than 25 years, Beard “remembered what food tasted like before supermarkets killed off local butchers and produce stands”—and he spent his whole life trying to share that memory with the public. But while he gave home cooks permission to put pleasure and flavor at the center of the American table, Beard kept his own struggles with self-doubt and his sexual identity in the closet (while winking at his own persona as a “gastronomic gigolo” in his books). Birdsall’s biography, The Man Who Ate Too Much, explores the paradox of Beard’s life as a beloved national figure who kept so much of himself hidden, “a man on a lonely coast who told us we could find meaning and comfort by embracing pleasure.”
     
    Go beyond the episode:
    - John Birdsall’s The Man Who Ate Too Much
    - Read his first essay on James Beard in Lucky Peach (RIP), “America, Your Food Is So Gay”
    - Watch the PBS American Masters documentary of Beard’s life, America’s First Foodie
    - Chefs like Alice Waters took Beard’s lessons for the home cook to the restaurant kitchen, as she recalls in this clip
    - Watch some moments from his short-lived show, I Love to Eat
    - Check out one of our favorite James Beard cookbooks, Beard on Bread, which still holds up.


    Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.


    Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • Acast


    Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes!
    Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
     
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    • 27 min
    #147: Who’s the Nerd Now?

    #147: Who’s the Nerd Now?

    Were you a geek? A nerd? Did you play Magic: The Gathering, paint Warhammer miniatures, learn to speak Klingon or Elvish, or memorize whole scenes from Star Trek? If so, then good news: it might have taken a few broken eyeglasses and shoves in high school, but geek culture has finally triumphed. Dragons are cool, Star Wars has never had more fans, and everyone is geeking out over the latest sci-fi release on Netflix. How did this happen? And how have the changing demographics of geekdom affected it, for better or worse? Lifelong nerd and critic A. D. Jameson, whose geek cred is stronger than the Force itself, joins us to figure it out. This episode originally aired in 2018.


    Go beyond the episode:
    - A. D. Jameson’s I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture
    - Read A. D. Jameson and Justin Roman’s article on sexism in gaming, “If Magic: The Gathering Cares About Women, Why Can’t They Hire Any?”
    - For more on how franchises have changed Hollywood’s structure, check out Stephen Metcalf’s article, “How Superheroes Made Movies Expendable”
    - If you’re looking for an escape this holiday weekend, please binge watch Marvel’s Jessica Jones  (reading a book would be fine, too)
    - Listen to the queer history of comics in our second podcast episode, “Superheroes Are So Gay!”


    Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.


    Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • Acast


    Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes!
    Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
     
    See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.

    • 20 min
    #146: How to Save Farming From Itself

    #146: How to Save Farming From Itself

    For decades, we’ve been filling our plates with fruit and vegetables from California’s Central Valley and with meat fattened by the golden fields of the Corn Belt. But the future of almonds and soybeans looks grim. Industrial agriculture yields massive crops, but in the process destroys its own foundations: groundwater and topsoil. In his new book, Perilous Bounty, journalist and former farmer Tom Philpott explores the contradictions in our food supply by narrowing his focus to these agricultural essentials—water and earth. He reveals a “quiet emergency” happening on our fruited plains, profiles the farmers adapting old ways to a new era, and suggests ways we might reimagine not only the future of food, but that of the people who grow, pick, and package it.


    Go beyond the episode:
    - Tom Philpott’s Perilous Bounty
    - Read his Guardian essay, “Unless we change course, the US agricultural system could collapse”
    - Philpott’s recent reporting has focused on the meatpacking industry, especially poultry production
    - And his recent article for Mother Jones features none other than Rob Wallace, the epidemiologist we interviewed back in March on “How Global Agriculture Grew a Pandemic”
    - If you’re missing dinner parties (we are!) listen to this immersive episode with Alexandra Kleeman and Jen Monroe, who served a futuristic menu set 30 years into our climate crisis


    Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.


    Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • Acast


    Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes!
     
    See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.

    • 22 min

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