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.