The Best Literature Podcast Today is … Conservative?

Yes. The podcast entitled The Great Books can be found on the website of The National Review (, the conservative editorial magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in the 50s. The discussions are hosted by John J. Miller, National Review’s national correspondent and professor at Hillsdale College, a private conservative college with a curriculum that is based on Western culture and the Judeo-Christian values. Most of Miller’s guests are drawn from the faculty of Hillsdale as well. So, one might be forgiven for expecting the show to march out a dreary slate of works by James Burnham, Milton Friedman, and who knows, Malatesta.

Instead, the podcast covers an admirable assortment of writers and texts, covering fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry, and religious texts. The tight half-hour discussion gives an overview of the writer’s life, delving more deeply on one or two issues key to his or her work. Then the host and guest enlighten the listener about the one chosen text is a back and forth interview that moves at a sprightly pace. Host Miller displays a level of expertise on par with most of his guests, ensuring a conversation that does not bog down in generalities. And he does not limit discussion to an agenda, conservative or otherwise.

Such an agenda would be difficult to impose, particularly on American literature. The vast majority of writers in America are, and have always been, liberal, if not radical. The arts in the new nation quickly established themselves as adversarial and often at odds with the culture’s self-definition, first as a country of farmers and mechanics, and later, in the jargon of 20th century socio-economics, as middle-class.

So the thought that a conservative reading of literature might be relevant, incisive, and, most surprisingly, laudatory is a hard one for the left to accept. But in terms of the actual podcast rather than its producers, politics actually play very little role in the discussion.

Surely that cannot be true. If conservatives analyze literature, it’s a given they will be traditional in their values, Eurocentric in their frame of reference, and canon-bound in their subjects. Proof: the podcast’s own description clearly states it examines “classic works within the Western literary canon.” A sampling of several programs and a perusal of their list of past topics (216 at the date of this writing) shows none of these boundaries to be absolute.

While traditional virtues like honesty, loyalty, wisdom, equality – long dismissed by the left as falsehoods covering power maneuvers – make regular appearances in discussion of themes in the novels and plays, vices makes appearances too, not to be dismissed as sins one must overcome but as part of the natural ebb and flow of the human condition as depicted in all good literature. Transgressive concepts such as ambiguity, uncertainty, and even aporia come in for praise as well in the discussion of works by Borges, Poe, and many others.

Eurocentrism, an overgeneralization at best, is given exception in works of prominent black American writers from Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington to Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston. If this does not go far enough afield from the Anglo-European tradition, ancient works from the Middle East such as Gilgamesh and from Central America such as The Popol Vuh are covered. The medieval Middle East also gets a nod with The Arabian Nights. And Asia proper has been examined through Sun Tzu and Shusaku Endo.

And far from being canon-bound in its subjects, The Great Books podcast thoughtfully and respectfully analyzes works that are elsewhere dismissed as “popular” or “genre” works. For example, Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian gets high marks for its accuracy of detail and its immersion in the lexicon and syntax of the era it depicts. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series is not just buttonholed as fantasy or science fiction but praised as a trenchant analysis of power. The discussion of Lovecraft considers his questioning of the metaphysical underpinnings of reality that closely resembles a similar program on The Book of Job.

If you’re too put off by the occasional short commercial break for a National Review subscription or promotion of the Hillsdale College curriculum to even give the show a try, that might be your loss. And although that traditional value of tolerance for a diversity of ideas might just be a mask worn by your oppressor, The Great Books is just a podcast – I’m guessing you know how to hit fast-forward over the commercials.

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