New Year’s Thank You: The Top Podcast Episodes of the Year

Dear Readers and Listeners:

It’s time for another humble thank you from your old friend Jacke. This year was another good one in Jackeland. No new books (alas), but a newly launched podcast, plenty of blogging inspiration – and most importantly, the community of readers and listeners who make everything worthwhile.

I owe you more than I could ever express.

But I’ll keep trying! Or at least, I’ll keep trying to express something. We may be uncertain about the role of literature, and we may have more failures than successes, but the creative spirit is still endlessly fascinating and apparently indefatigable. Let’s hope it’s the same – for you as well as me – in 2016, as it was in 2015.

I’m going to take a quick run through the most popular episodes of The History of Literature, as selected by you the listeners. Here we go from 10-6:

#10 (tie) – Gar Discovers a Lost Recording of Walt Whitman!

Gar finds a lost recording of Walt Whitman reading his own poetry! Plus: Author Jacke Wilson gives an update on the Greatest First Lines contest.



#10 (tie) – Greek Comedy – Aristophanes

Author Jacke Wilson examines the life and works of Aristophanes, whose comic plays included The Clouds, which pokes fun at philosophers such as Socrates, and Lysistrata, where the females of Athens and Sparta go on a sex strike in an attempt to end the war.


#10 (tie) – Proust, Pound, and Chinese Poetry

A young Jacke Wilson immerses himself in great books on his way from Taiwan to Tibet – and finds out what Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Chinese poetry can teach him about literature and life.



#10 (tie) – A Jacke Wilson Holiday

Jacke offers some holiday thoughts on loneliness, his failures with women and the theater, and a teary trip to the Nutcracker.


#9 – Odysseus Leaves Calypso

Responding to a listener email, author Jacke Wilson takes a deeper look at one of the Odyssey’s most famous passages. Why does Odysseus leave Calypso, and what does it tell us about Homer and his genius? And is it fair to compare Achilles and Odysseus with Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny?



#8 – Greek Tragedy (Part Two) – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides

Author Jacke Wilson examines the works of three great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides – and attempts to solve the mystery of why Friedrich Nietzsche admired two of the three and despised the other.



#7 – Sappho

Ancient Greece viewed her as Homer’s poetic equal; Plato referred to her as the “tenth muse.” As a fearless and lyrical chronicler of female desire, she had a profound impact on literature and society. Author Jacke Wilson takes a look at the genius of Sappho, the first great female writer in the history of literature.



#6 – Nietzsche’s Children

Continuing the discussion of Greek tragedy, Jacke takes a look at Nietzsche and the impact he has on eager young philosophers. This episode includes the Jacke Wilson story “My Roommate’s Books” from the History of Jacke in 100 Objects series.



Onward and upward, everyone!

A Jacke Wilson Holiday (Restless Mind Episode 10)

Jacke offers some holiday thoughts on loneliness, his failures with women and the theater, and a teary trip to the Nutcracker.

Happy Holidays!


“Mao Doesn’t Sell” – The Chinese Government’s Return to Confucianism


Fascinating article in the WSJ about the Chinese government’s attempt to return to Confucianism. “Mao doesn’t sell,” says one official. But what’s left?

In the last year, the party has publicly ordered its officials nationwide to attend lectures on Confucius and other classical Chinese thinkers, while tightening restrictions on Western influence in art, academia and religion. … The goal isn’t just to encourage “national self-confidence” but to aid “personality development,” encourage altruism and instill “Chinese national moral thinking,” the ministry says in an emailed response to questions.

We’re right in the middle of our look at Confucius on the History of Literature podcast. And as the article reminds us, it’s clear that the issues raised by Confucius 2,500 years ago aren’t going away anytime soon.

Still, I have my doubts. What does it mean for a central government to use art to instill a way of thinking? What does that do for the art itself? What does it mean for our understanding of it?

Quick links:

Episode 8 – The Shi Jing (Chinese Classical Poetry)

Jacke Wilson takes a look at the 305 ancient Chinese poems known as the Shi Jing (also known as the Classic of Poetry or Book of Songs).





Episode 8 – The Shi Jing (Chinese Classical Poetry)


Our history of literature journey continues by traveling to the other side of the globe, where Chinese poets are busy recording ancient folk songs and verse that together convey a picture of life in ancient China, from peasants and farmers to soldiers and diplomats. Eventually a selection of these poems will be gathered into a single collection edited by Confucius. Jacke Wilson takes a look at the 305 ancient Chinese poems known as the Shi Jing (also known as the Classic of Poetry or Book of Songs).


Sneak Preview: The Chinese Classic of Poetry


Hello everyone! This week we’ll be taking a look at the Shi Jing, or Classic of Poetry. It’s our first work from China on the History of Literature podcast.

The above image depicts the first poem in the collection: how gorgeous is that? I love the combination of a beautifully rendered poem and the serenity of Chinese art in the river-and-mountain style. Literature + nature = art made for Jacke, it seems.

The Classic of Poetry (or Book of Songs) is a collection of 305 poems that bubbled up out of folk songs and other traditional sources before being preserved as written poems by unknown authors. They were selected (from a group of several thousand) by Confucius roughly 2,500 years ago.

I’ll be talking about the 305 poems in the collection on Monday’s episode, and Confucius’ selection process, although I do spend quite a bit of time discussing American bookstores as well. All part of the fun.

Light posting today and this week as I do some traveling for the holidays. I hope you are enjoying some good family time as well.

And here’s a sneak preview within the sneak preview: 2016 looks like it might be a very big year for your old friend Jacke. Stay tuned!

Quick Links:

Image Credit: “Shi Jing“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Are Chain Bookstores Doomed? Or Just Stupid? The U.K. Shows the U.S. How It’s Done

Have you been to a Barnes and Noble lately? It looks like a record shop, a toy store, an arts supplies store, an…ehhh, I don’t know what.

I know what you’re thinking.

Well, Jacke, can you blame them? Look how besieged they are!  Look what happened to the indies! Look what happened to Borders! Let’s pity B&N. They have to do something. The market for physical copies of books is shrinking, and bricks-and-mortar stores find it hard to compete with Amazon around…

That’s the lament. Or the excuse. Barnes & Noble? Books? Aren’t they just a showroom for

So all that–market forces, a ruthless online juggernaut, customer preferences–all that left B&N with no choice, right? They had to load up their showroom into a Willie Wonka garage sale?

Ron Boire, the company’s third chief executive in two years, suggested shifting the business away from reading toward things like games, gifts, and art supplies. He seemed particularly excited about 3-D printing and those oxymoronic “adult coloring books,” which Boire said capitalized on a new vogue among consumers for “physical interaction with things.”

Away from reading. Good idea, B&N CEO!

Look, adult coloring books and those 3-D printers are somewhere between harmless fad and destined for failure–that will all become clear soon enough. But the philosophy employed by B&N will remain, and other trinkets and toys will zip into that spot. Books will get crowded out. Away from reading!

(Hint for Mr. Boire: that “new vogue” of “physical interaction with things”? That’s why people want to buy your books too.)

Games and gifts have their place, but come on, Barnes & Noble! Sell books, sell lots of books, make books front and center. Make the books beautiful. Make the displays beautiful. Make the right books easy to find. Dazzle us with the experience of your books.

What is with Barnes & Noble? Why are they so dense?

Why hire Ron Boire, who I’m sure is a very fine fellow, with his background in bookselling and publishing and, well, he’s probably written a few books himself…wait, what? He comes from Sony? From Brookstone, Sears, and Kmart? From Toys R’ Us?

Okay, okay. I hear you. Don’t blame Barnes & Noble, blame Amazon for driving them out of business. (Nevermind that B&N seems devoted to dumb ideas and refuses to follow any of the Jacke Wilson ideal bookstore precepts, which I told them about in 2013, for crying out loud.)

Bookstores are losing to the Internet, just like newspapers and classified ads and broadcast television.

Or are they?

While Barnes & Noble devolves from a bookstore into a thing store, Waterstones, the biggest bookstore chain in Britain, is plotting an entirely different course. In 2011, the company—choked with debt and facing the same existential threat from Amazon and e-books as B&N—nearly declared bankruptcy. Today, however, Waterstones isn’t closing shops but opening a raft of them, both big-box (in suburban shopping centers) and pint-size (in train stations). It has accomplished a stunning turnaround under the leadership of its managing director, James Daunt, who just announced Waterstones’ first annual profit since the financial crisis. How he pulled that off is a long story, involving old-fashioned business cunning, the largesse of a mysterious Russian oligarch, and some unexpected faith in the instincts of his booksellers.

That’s Stephen Heyman, writing in Slate. The whole story is fascinating and you should definitely check it out. Here’s a hint for Barnes & Noble: don’t hire a CEO from Sears, for God’s sake. Hire a guy like Daunt, a successful independent bookseller, who cares about reading. His ideas for bookstore success are suffused with that basic idea: what do customers want to read, and how do we deliver that to them?

Toward reading, Barnes & Noble! Not away from. Toward.

But now…I’m going to switch gears a bit. Because I was talking about this in our very first History of Literature podcast. Is literature dying? That was my question. Here’s the episode if you missed it. (It’s only 15 minutes – feel free to give it a second listen if it’s been a while.)

Episode 0 – Battling the Beast

Here we go! Episode zero of our new podcast, The History of Literature, right here on Let me know what you think!


Introducing the wildly unqualified host, Jacke Wilson.


Is literature dying? I thought it might be. And I don’t just mean printed, hard copy books, I mean the phenomenon of people turning to literature for something they can’t get anywhere else. Whatever made people turn to literature–entertainment, escape, enlightenment, joy, knowledge–well, I wondered if they were finding that elsewhere.

Is literature dying? I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not. That’s the overarching (if often unmentioned) theme of every single episode. I’m reading my way through great works of literature, and seeing whether these books still matter. They did at one time, or at least they did for me. Do they still?

But hey, I’m just a guy, a nobody, a failure, as my producer helpfully pointed out. To really answer the question, we need to look for signs in our culture. Other objective evidence. Hard facts.

And that’s why the Slate article resonated with me. The great dying out of bookstores–all bookstores, including B&N–was not helping literature’s case, people.

But go read that Slate article and tell me if the recent success of Waterstones–and more importantly the reasons for that success–aren’t a cause for optimism. Maybe bookstores aren’t doomed.

Maybe they’re just stupid.

Quick Links:





Episode 7A – Proust, Pound, and Chinese Poetry

A young Jacke Wilson immerses himself in great books on his way from Taiwan to Tibet – and finds out what Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Chinese poetry can teach him about literature and life.



Little Black Dress? Yes. Little Black Penguin Classics? Also Yes!

Some things are so classy they just never go out of style. Like little black dresses, and little black classics from Penguin Books. Here’s another gift idea for this holiday season (along with Edward Gorey).

Eighty Penguin Classics, presented in bite-sized form (i.e., novellas, short essays, selections of poems, or excerpted passages from longer books).

Yes, it’s a bit of a commitment ($75 or so), but that’s cheap for what you’re getting, and think of the possibilities here. Close your eyes, grab one, tuck it into your pocket, and head out to face the day. Give yourself a little surprise: a bit of Chekhov, maybe, or a touch of Sappho. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,: Suetonius, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Montaigne.

Will it work? Can I make my year better through this strategy of randomizing my brain expansion? Stay tuned!

Amazon description:

The Little Black Classics feature works by Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, John Milton, Nikolay Leskov, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Glaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Samuel Pepys, Washington Irving, Henry James, Christina Rossetti, Sophocles, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Boccaccio, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas de Quincey, Apollonius of Rhodes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Petronius, John Peter Hebel, Hans Christian Andersen, Rudyard Kipling, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Guy de Maupassant, Aesop, Joseph Conrad, Brothers Grimm, Katherine Mansfield, Ovid, Ivan Turgenev, H. G. Wells, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Nashe, Mary Kingsley, Honoré de Balzac, C. P. Cavafy, Wilfred Owen, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Plato, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Giorgio Vasari, Friederich Nietzsche, Suetonius, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Dante, Henry Mayhew, Hafez, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Ruskin, Pu Songling, Jonathan Swift, Walt Whitman, Kenko, Baltasar Gracián, Marco Polo, Matsuo Basho, Emily Bronte, Richard Hakluyt, Omar Khayyam, Charles Darwin, Catullus, Homer, D. H. Lawrence, Sappho, Virgil, Herodotus, Shen Fu, and others.

Paul McCartney Is Number One (Cue Backlash)

Poor Paul. If you’ve been around the blog for a while, you know my affection for the guy. It’s so easy to like John and George and Ringo. Paul? Everyone wants to take a stance on him, and by that I mean to take a stance against him and his music. Too sappy! Too sweet! Too smooth! Too happy!

That’s the criticism of “Wonderful Christmastime.” And you know what: I don’t care. I can take the heat. It was my favorite as a kid. Songs are like pizza: you prefer the ones you grew up with.

All that was easy when the song flew under the radar. It wasn’t played very much. Some years I wouldn’t hear it until late December, and I’d have to seek it out. It was number 18 on the list. A good spot: high enough to be heard, not so high you’d get tired of it.

But now, thanks to the Shins remix, “Wonderful” is the most listened-to Christmas song of the year, replacing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Number one!

And I know what’s going to happen. If it’s played this much, people will rebel. Satires will be made. McCartney will take the blame. And it will be awful. He’s the worst punching bag. First, he never seems to see it coming. Second, the criticism bothers him. He gets a bit defensive in a sad way, he overreacts. Expect him to issue some kind of corrective to answer his critics, an overly serious Christmas song that doesn’t convince anyone.

Why do we do this to him? Why do we hate the things we love?

And how did they miss this superior version? If you’re going to go with a remake, why not the a capella version from Straight No Chaser?

We can’t take too much sugar, can we, America? We like it in so many other ways. We pump it into our drinks and call it “corn syrup” as if that’s healthier. And we clean  up all our ideas .We demand happy endings at the theater. We sanitize the news. We pretend that very bad things in the world are not happening, and if they are, they’re all the fault of foreigners. And then here comes happy Paul, whistling his way down the path of life, sharing a little joy for it…and we mock him and scorn him and roll our eyes and put our finger in our throats. We hate him.

We whisper, Well, John would have never…

So here’s my proposal. Let’s just dial it back. Let’s let the Shins version slowly recede to a nice spot. Maybe number 17. Let it live there with its twin, giving us a little spot of cheer in the middle of those other diva-and-crooner tour de forces. Let’s do that for Paul.

And instead, let’s move up one of the others. One that’s unassailable. One we’ll never grow tired of. I vote for the current number 10. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Let’s just make this number 1. We need a champion. This is it.

Oooooooh. Soooooo good.

Go ahead, just try to take down Ella. You’ll get nowhere. All your mockery will only expose you for the grinch you are.

I know, I know, you’re not up for that fight. Because you’re a bully, you go for the easy target. And that’s Paul. Paul, with his irrepressible spirit. Paul, with his irrepressible synths. Paul with his irrepressible mullet.

Merry Christmas, Haters! Enjoy your hatefest!

History of Literature Episode 7 – Greek Comedy – Aristophanes

Author Jacke Wilson examines the life and works of Aristophanes, whose comic plays included The Clouds, which pokes fun at philosophers such as Socrates, and Lysistrata, where the females of Athens and Sparta go on a sex strike in an attempt to end the war.