The State of American Literacy As Represented by Talk Show Hosts

From The Leonard Lopate Show, September 22, 2004, at the 14:04 mark on the RealAudio file, from a conversation with Terry Gross:

LOPATE: The question that people ask me the most is, “Do you read all of those books?” And I don’t know what to say. I do get help. And I usually say, “I get help.” But they don’t want to hear that. They want to believe that all I do, day and night, even on the air, is read books for tomorrow’s show.

GROSS: Well, what I say is that I read all the books. But I put — use my fingers to put quotation marks around the word “read.” ‘Cause what I do when I read the book is probably a closer approximation to skimming. ‘Cause I’m reading really fast and then slowing down for parts that I think will be relevant to the interview. And then taking notes on what I read.

LOPATE: Have you discovered that it’s ruined your personal reading? It’s hard for me to read a novel today or anything else just for pleasure. Because questions are always from it. I want to ask, “Well, Mr. Dostoevsky, why did you have Raskolnikov do that in Chapter 6?”

GROSS: That’s a really good question. You know, often, on vacations, I read — I intentionally read — a dead author. So that I’m not doing what you just said. So that I’m off the hook. So I can just read it. But this summer was one of the first vacations in a long time I did not read a whole novel. I read part of a novel. And then I found myself reading newspapers. It’s so hard not to read the newspaper right now. The newspaper itself is so interesting. And I feel like I can’t go a day without reading the newspaper. There are magazines that I wanted to catch up on. And I had to — I had to not read. I went to see one or two movies, or a movie and a concert, every day that I was on vacation. And I really felt I needed to spend a little bit of time not reading. Because I read so much.

LOPATE: When you’re putting together the questions you’re to ask, do you ever rely on those press kits? Their favorite question, which is, “Why did you write this book?”

GROSS: The part that I usually — I usually read the press releases because it’s a nice kind of frame before you start the book. When you’re reading at my pace, it’s nice to have a kind of brief overview of the book. So I’ll read reviews also. But I will intentionally not read the questions that the publisher gives. Because some of those questions are going to be good. Some of those questions are going to be questions that I would have asked anyways. But if I see those questions, it will make me think, “Well, I can’t ask that question.” Because that question has been put before me by a publicist and I’ll feel like I’m asking it because they told me to. So I feel like I can’t afford to look at it. So I’ll just, you know, do you know what I mean?

LOPATE: I know perfectly well. It’s almost a perversity, their pride that I have to do it all by myself. If I don’t want to rely on the publicity machine to tell me what to do —

GROSS: Well, you want to expect that your questions are independent of that. And yet a lot of the publicists are really smart. And they’re coming out with really good questions. So…

LOPATE: Well, they try to intrigue you into having the guest.

GROSS: Yes. So my technique is don’t read it.


  1. Appalling. I thought Curtis White was a little harsh on Terry Gross in “The Middle Mind.” Man was I wrong!

  2. At first glance I thought you filed this under “Gross” but upon closer inspection is see it’s actually filed under “Gross, Terry”. Either way is appropriate.

  3. That’s seems okay with me, because I find that I don’t really have the time anymore to listen to all of Ms. Gross’ insipid interviews or read any of Lopate’s stultifying criticism.

  4. I have more mixed feelings about this. She’s actually interviewing authors on a program that reaches a wide group of listeners. To boot, she has Maureen Corrigan doing book reviews…recommending 2 to 3 books at least once a week if not more often. Her program reaches many more people than blogs do. Guess I’m more inclined to be understand that work is work, no matter how much you enjoy it.

  5. I want to speak in Terry Gross’ defense. Even if she skims some books, she still does the best author interviews around. No other show makes me rush out to get a book like Fresh Air. She asks open-ended questions, too, which many other interviewers, too enamored of their own voice, fail to do.

  6. There’s a fundamental difference between speaking in your innate voice and being enamored of it. There’s also a difference between “open-ended” questions that produce the same boilerplate answers and sustained inquiry.

    But fuck it, really. The corporate media have won. Slate gets money from NYU for their video program despite being a corporation. Terry Gross gets $65,000 from the NEA because she is distributed on NPR. The media belongs only to those who can pay for it. And they get all the spoils too to ensure that any remotely independent voice gets shut out.

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