Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The (Professional) Bookworm

" . . . An interview on the air is so much more than what gets said. You hear the laughter, the emotional flow. And it’s only then that the listener starts to feel comfortable and really listens. That’s the point at which they say, 'I might read that book.' And I want to get the reader to that point. And it really involves a lot of give and take, a lot of emotional sharing. I generally read about six to eight hours a day, and try to read the author’s complete work before I interview them. And you’d be surprised at how few authors have ever met someone who’s read everything they’ve written. I’m like a mirror to them. Then they start trying to see themselves in the mirror, and then we’re really in something like the equivalent of a psychoanalytic transaction between a person and their image. That’s when you get the things that are generally interesting.

"I think we have a spiritual and imaginal dimension that I never hear referred to, so I wanted my half-hour to be a place where every kind of seriousness about the value of life — its preciousness or its wastefulness, its insanity, its possibility — could be a valued subject for conversation. And I wanted listeners to say, “God, I never hear people talking about this.” --from Malibu Magazine

He only talks about books he likes. He has an engaging voice--quiet, slightly nasal, yet somehow hypnotic--that epitomizes understatement. He asks sensitive, insightful questions that probe the foundations of literature--text and technique. Who is he? He's Michael Silverblatt, the host of Bookworm, a nationally-syndicated half-hour radio program (broadcast on KCRW in Los Angeles, CA) where he sits down with authors--with names like T.C. Boyle, Marilynne Robinson, Junot Diaz and Joan Didion--and talks, compellingly and personally, about books.

Silverblatt was always a "reading geek," as he calls himself. He studied literature at SUNY Buffalo and started grad school at Johns Hopkins University. Disillusioned with academia, he dropped out and headed for New York, but he found "the publishing world too insular and too peopled with young trust-fund-subsidized editors for his taste." In the 1980s, he moved to California and tried to write screenplays. During that time--to support himself, he worked at bookstores and read voraciously--his life took an unexpected turn. At a dinner party, the general manager from KCRW overheard Silverblatt discussing Russian poetry and, sensing his passion for literature, she invited Silverblatt to start a radio program that would later become Bookworm. That was 20 years ago. The rest is history.

I download podcasts of Bookworm regularly. This month, Oprah Magazine is running a profile on Silverblatt and his program. A great feature--it sheds light on the man who helps readers look through writers' eyes.