Talking About Literature: The Spouter-Inn

The new year has brought a new project: “The Spouter-Inn,” a literature podcast that I’ve been doing together with Chris Piuma, through (which hosts “fancy little shows”). I thought it might be interesting to describe how I got to this point, and what it’s been like experimenting in a medium that is very different from the environment I know best – that is, the classroom.

This project took a long time being born. It started out as an offshoot from a course I launched at the University of Toronto in 2009, “The Literary Tradition.” This was a big, year-long lecture course that the English Department decided to offer as a kind of ‘backgrounds to English literature’ requirement that undergraduates could take at the entry level. In the first year, we had about 400 students and a whole flock of teaching assistants to carry out tutorials that would supplement the lectures, which I gave in the Isabel Bader Theatre.

It was a strange experience teaching that course. Because the room was so big, I couldn’t teach in the way I was accustomed to, with short periods of lecturing punctuated by interactive discussion. Instead, I had to take on what I can only describe as a ‘preacherly mode,’ where my aim was not just to convey information about the books we were reading, but to inspire. What I wanted to inspire was, exactly, love of reading: a desire to read more, to read widely, to read more than was required. A desire to keep reading even after the course was over.

Over the next few years, I taught the class in slightly different ways, changing up the books. Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Symposium, and the Thousand and One Nights were constants, but other books came and went – Augustine’s Confessions, Goethe’s Faust. But one thing stayed the same, and that was the remarkable power of the lecture, at certain moments, to create a sense of excitement in the room. This did not happen every time, of course; but when it did, the room was electric.

I started to want to find a way to do for casual readers something like what I had found I could do for the students in the Literary Tradition class, to build up a sense of excitement and a desire to read. Because I had already been writing headnotes to some of the same literary works, as part of my work as a volume editor for the Norton Anthology of World Literature, I thought that the obvious solution was a volume of essays. I thought I would call it “Dante’s Friends,” riffing off a wonderful moment that happens early in Dante’s Inferno, where Dante (the character) enters Limbo and meets a whole range of poets, philosophers, and rulers from the ancient world. Dante is delighted when those ancient writers – Homer, Plato, and Ovid among them – welcome him among their number, calling him “poet.” These essays, I thought, would be a way to bring out the conversations that happen across books over time, a conversation that Dante imaginatively brings to life in the account of Limbo in his Inferno.

I didn’t want the essays to be lectures in written format. I wanted them to excite and engage the reader, and quickly realized that the way to do this was to foreground my own emotional response to these books. What I needed to do was to explain how these books resonated for me, why they mattered, how they made me feel. So I began to consider how to integrate the personal within the professional, mingling scholarly insights with personal anecdotes.

After roughing out a couple of these essays, I began to talk with friends about what I was trying to do. They consistently responded in the same way: politely interested in what I said about the books, their attention caught more by the personal stories I was using to put the books in context. This, I knew right away, could not work: I wanted my own response to support the books, not to upstage them.

I put the project aside, hoping that a solution would come to me if I left it alone for a while. Then one day, Chris Piuma – whom I’d told all about the collection of essays I was trying to write, and who had been involved in the Literary Tradition course long before – suggested, Maybe you could do what you’re aiming to do through a podcast? I was intrigued, but uncertain; this was not a medium I had any sense of, either as a producer or a user of podcasts.

But we kept talking, and before long, we had hatched a new project: The Spouter-Inn. Here, there was a way to harness the personal and the affective in the service of the books, a way to be very personal and yet also keep the words of the writers – Homer, Plato, Ovid, and so many others – front and center.

When we plan out a podcast, Chris and I don’t write a script: some podcasts, especially those that serve as teaching aids, do carefully compose and edit a script, and the producers will record and re-record until they get each episode exactly right. That’s almost the opposite of what we do at The Spouter-Inn. We’re aiming for spontaneity and a sense of excitement, so what we do is make a ‘road map’ listing a few basic turns that we’d like to take, and I add a handful of quotations that I think we might use. We never use all of the quotations, and we never do them in the order that I’ve listed. What we do is talk, and laugh, and think, and wonder. That’s exactly the kind of feeling I was hoping to capture in those essays, and I’m so delighted that Chris and I have found a way to make that hope a reality.

We’ve done our first ‘cluster’ of three books so far – Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Symposium, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and we’re about to move onto our next cluster, made up of books by three women writers: Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I have a lot to say about what it might mean to make up a cluster of women writers – above all, why would we want to treat ‘women writers’ as a separate category at all? – and Chris and I will keep talking about the idea of a ‘canon,’ of ‘great books,’ or ‘foundational’ works. What do those terms imply, and how can we talk about the system of values, both implicit and explicit, that they convey?

In the coming months, we have clusters planned on Evil, on America, on Revolution, on Frametales, and on Art Objects. I’m very excited by what we’re calling a ‘watery cluster,’ with three books that say something about the Ocean. I haven’t been this excited about reading, and about discussing what I’ve read, in a very long time. It’s like being a kid at the library again.

And, oh yes – are you wondering why it’s called “The Spouter-Inn”? Our podcast is named after a chapter in one of my favorite books, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but The Spouter-Inn is also (in the words of Melville’s narrator, Ishmael) “a queer sort of place.” It is both an ominous “gable-ended old house” that offers shelter from the cold night air and a place of companionship where Ishmael and his roommate, Queequeg, get acquainted, and smoke, and sleep. It’s a brief pause on a longer journey. Similarly, our own Spouter-Inn is (we hope) a place of gathering, a place where you can share something – conversation, or just company.

This sense of companionship is something that we hope you’ll find not only in listening to our podcast, but also in the company of the books you read on your own. Because this sense of companionship is exactly what a good book offers – whether it’s what you might call a ‘great book’ or not.