Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Podcasts and Barthelme and books, oh my.

Often at work, when I tire of spending my time listening to The Current at a volume so low that I cannot figure out what song is being played, I take to spoken-word podcasts. My standard rotation includes a great deal of NPR, but I've recently become a fan of several New Yorker podcasts, especially The New Yorker Out Loud, which features one of the week's contributors chatting about his or her article. This week's podcast is a fun little chat with Ariel Levy about political social-utopianist lesbians of the 1970s.

However, since I'm a book nerd and all, the previous week's podcast featuring Louis Menand talking about Donald Barthelme is what has me all in a tizzy right now, in part because it introduced me to The New Yorker Fiction podcast.

Barthelme is one of my favorite short story writers; even though I only own the Sixty Stories and Forty Stories collections, I often dip into one of the volumes to find a refreshing, beautiful, absurd little piece of writing that makes me feel better, especially if I'm in the middle of a long-haul of a book (hello, 2666, how're you? Yes, I'm talking about you). "The Balloon" is certainly one of my top ten favorite short stories; through the silly "what-if" setup of a balloon being inflated over much of lower Manhattan, Barthelme touches on the public's interaction with art and its complete separation from the creator's content. It is also poignant and wickedly funny.

Speaking of wickedly funny, Barthelme's "I Bought at Little City", read by novelist David Antrim in a perfectly droll fashion, is one of the stories featured on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. This podcast is my new work-drug. Brilliant short stories read by the authors of other great short stories! Mary Gaitskill reads Nabokov! Aleksander Hemon on Bernard Malamud! Oh, the wonder of it all.

I recently had a chat about books with someone who emphatically stated that he liked "big" books (in both scope and volume), and was dismissive of anything less. I consider this argument equivalent to someone deciding to exercise, but only doing strength training with the heaviest possible weights you can lift. That's part of it, but you need cardio, you need light work, you need a variety of exercises to keep yourself in balance. Brilliant short stories like Barthelme's help keep me quick, and the craft that goes into short works often has to be better than that of "big" novels, because the impact must be made with less material.

Okay, I think I'll stop now, because otherwise this is going to segue into a discussion about Twitter, and I'd rather save that for another time.