Photo: Gregg Lewis/Courtesy of KCRW
To try to explain how Michael interacts with writers is, invariably, to fall short. But here are a few of my favorite moments: He said to poet Matthea Harvey that her mind was "like popcorn—there's no stopping it." He told Junot Díaz, "Oscar Wao is someone very much like me." He asked Brad Gooch about gay spirituality as it related to Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor. He told Walter Mosley, "The amount of death without mourning in these books is difficult for someone like me, because a mystery writer isn't going to take you to the funeral of each and every corpse." (And Walter Mosley replied, "Right, right, right, you couldn't do that.") To John Wray, the author of Lowboy, Michael said, "I love the language of schizophrenia." In a tribute to Walt Whitman, Michael remembered his own discovery of Leaves of Grass : "I started to read out loud. And when I started to read out loud, I started to like it and walked out into the hallway and walked across the campus Pied Piper style, reading mostly not to students but to the runaway kids who used to crowd around the ground floors of the dormitories. And then eventually we all sat on an elevator going up and down reading all of 'Song of Myself.'"
From his book-lined apartment (no kidding, even in the kitchen cupboards—and all alphabetized), Michael tells me: "I believe in the elaborate taking care of others. And we live in a culture where 'I'm not my brother's keeper,' 'That's your responsibility,' 'Get a life' have become bywords, code phrases, anthems for elaborate indifference, selfishness, greediness, and the failure of empathetic acceptance. In the same way that we need to repair the economy, we need to repair the effects of an economy of selfishness. And that isn't just the filling in of the big bucks that have fallen out of the system. The rescue that we need is emotional rescue, communicative, large-hearted. I've always dreamed that people listening to the show would hear that readers and writers are expanders of feeling centers, of the global ability to imagine other lives. And I want people listening to the show, yes, of course, to grasp its intelligence, but to also hear that it wants to show the feeling that reading and imagination inspire in writers and readers. We want to share those things with listeners. There are all sorts of other things that you get on radio and television, but I wanted listeners of Bookworm to hear words, ideas, but particularly emotions that don't get discussed in public if at all elsewhere. That is to say, for one reason or another, the show is a crusade that's much larger than the subject of books."
This philosophy, along with his studious preparation (which he calls "just being honorable"), might be the reason writers like to go on the show, why Norman Mailer marched into Ruth Seymour's office to tell her, "Do you know what a treasure you have here?" Why Annie Proulx described him in an e-mail as "a rarity in American literature—a passionate, emotional, understanding, deep-plunging reader." Why Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in a newspaper editorial (translated from Spanish): "No sooner did he start to speak and I was glued to what he said and, almost immediately, I was conquered."
And yet National Public Radio and Public Radio International have declined to distribute Bookworm. Critics say the half-hour format is a hard sell, and that the show lacks objectivity—Michael Silverblatt covers only books he likes. But the Internet has ushered in a whole new golden era for radio. Bookworm's online archive includes nearly 1,000 interviews. Last year, folks from all over the world downloaded 275,270 free podcasts. A younger generation has found Bookworm, much to Michael's delight.
We Hear You!