Open Source with Christopher Lydon

Christopher Lydon

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

  • Chasing Beauty

    We’re on a hometown spree along the famous Fenway in the heart of Boston. Fenway Park is where the Red Sox play, John Updike’s “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” Fenway Court, built around the same time just a few blocks away, is a jewel box, a treasure house of high art, an American palazzo and museum like none other, a matching monument to quirky Boston’s eccentricity and its beauty.

    Courtyard, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. (Photo: Sean Dungan.

    We owe Natalie Dykstra for her new biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner—who designed Fenway Court, inch by inch. She invented this magical space where Proper Old Boston got up close and personal with the Italian Renaissance, and does to this day.

    Natalie Dykstra. (Photo: Ellen Dykstra.)

    Mrs. Gardner made social history, art history, women’s history on a grand scale, but there’s something more here, evident in the Titian room of her museum, with masterpieces on the walls by the giants: Velasquez, Titian himself, and Botticelli around the corner. But there’s Mrs. Gardner, too. She had the authority of an empress (and a whole lot of money) in assembling this art, one painting at a time. Somehow the final effect is unpretentious, intimate, humble, democratic.

    Our banner image is from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston—

    6 June 2024, 9:16 pm
  • 46 minutes 10 seconds
    Nicholson Baker Finds a Likeness

    We’re taking a drawing lesson with Nicholson Baker—yes, the multifarious writers’ writer Nick Baker; the COVID lab leak detective; the pacifist historian of World War II in his book Human Smoke; he’s also the cherubic pornographer in Vox, about phone sex; and he’s the podcaster and performer of his own protest songs.

    He is a marvel, and his big new book is a life-changer, titled Finding a Likeness: How I Got Somewhat Better at Art. Listeners will hear him drawing and growing in the making of this book. And here at our site, you can see him drawing Chris (videographer: Mary McGrath).

    Below: Chris Lydon and Nicholson Baker.

    23 May 2024, 9:24 pm
  • 55 minutes 19 seconds
    Campus Uproar

    We’re sampling the uproar rising from American campuses: it’s a full blown, leaderless movement by now, in an established American tradition, but still contested, still finding its way, looking for its pattern. Columbia and USC have cancelled graduation ceremonies. Many more schools are threatening suspensions or worse if students don’t remove their encampments. In our neighborhood, Harvard Yard is encamped, closed to people without Harvard ID. Harvard students are catch-as-catch-can.

    Zachary Samalin and Sophia Azeb.

    We are dropping in conversationally on faculty players we know on either side of the country: Sophia Azeb at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Zachary Samalin at New York University in Manhattan. Santa Cruz is encamped in tents and abuzz with notably civil and inclusive debates about rights, wrongs, and history—all the arguments about Palestine that Congress doesn’t have. You could wonder: what if the 19-year-olds who have preempted the conversation from the campuses are, in fact, the leaders we have been looking for?

    9 May 2024, 11:49 pm
  • 42 minutes 44 seconds
    American Disorder

    The key battle taking place in this American crisis year of 2024 is happening in our heads, according to the master historian Richard Slotkin. He’s here to tell us all that we’re in a 40-year culture war and an identity crisis by now. It’s all about drawing on legendary figures like Daniel Boone and Frederick Douglass, Betsy Ross and Rosa Parks, Robert E. Lee and G.I. Joe for a composite self-portrait of the country.

    Richard Slotkin.

    Richard Slotkin says we’re in a contest of origin stories, in search of a common national myth. His book is A Great Disorder: National Myth and the Battle for America. It is the Trump-Biden fight, of course, but with centuries of history bubbling under it.

    25 April 2024, 8:18 pm
  • 47 minutes 44 seconds
    Lessons from Hannah Arendt

    We’re calling on Hannah Arendt for the twenty-first century—could she teach us how to think our way out of the authoritarian nightmare? Arendt wrote the book for all time on Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. And then she famously covered the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi minister of death. Her study of the origins of totalitarianism keeps her current fifty years after her death and, pointedly, in our own rancorous presidential campaign of 2024.

    Hannah Arendt.

    Lyndsey Stonebridge.

    In this podcast, the surprise turns on finding a profound humanity and hope, believe it or not, in the collected wisdom of Hannah Arendt. She noted in one essay, “We are free to change the world.” Our guest, Lyndsey Stonebridge, lifted that line for the title of her gripping, fresh take on Hannah Arendt. We Are Free to Change the World is her title, and thinking has everything to do with it.

    11 April 2024, 10:15 pm
  • 50 minutes 57 seconds
    Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets

    We’re going to school on Taylor Swift, in the Harvard course. And all we know is, as her song says, we’re enchanted to meet her. Taylor Swift comes out of literature but she’s more than a poet, or a pop star. Maybe the word is “enchanter” for the artist who gets it all into a song, who knows the fusion power of sharp words with the right minimum of melody.

    Stephanie Burt and M.J. Cunniff.

    We’re anticipating Taylor Swift’s next album, her “Tortured Poets Department,” coming in April. Stephanie Burt and M.J. Cunniff have made a hit course of it all for Harvard undergraduates. Professor Burt has been a critical gateway to contemporary poetry. And she knows her songwriters as well.

    28 March 2024, 7:47 pm
  • 36 minutes 44 seconds
    Of Melville and Marriage

    We speak of the mystery of Herman Melville, or the misery of Melville, the American masterpiece man. For Moby-Dick alone, he is our Shakespeare, our Dante—though he fled the writing of prose for the last half of his life, and in death The New York Times misspelled his name.

    Jennifer Habel and Chris Bachelder.

    This podcast is a demonstration of another way, a better way to crack the riddle of Melville: read the book aloud with someone you love and jot down every question that comes to your mind. Before you know it, you’ll have written your own novel on a few hundred Post-it notes. Our guests, Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel, call their novel Dayswork, and it’s a marvel.

    14 March 2024, 7:35 pm
  • 56 minutes 40 seconds
    Against Despair

    The subject, in a word, is despair, both public and private. The poets and spiritual seekers Christian Wiman and his wife Danielle Chapman are back to goad us, each with a new book. Their project is staring into the abyss, in the Nietzsche formula, to see if the abyss stares back, or talks back. And I think it does.

    Christian Wiman and Danielle Chapman.

    Listeners, you be the judge. Christian Wiman’s new book is Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair. It’s more interesting because the woman who broke his life open in love, most of 20 years ago, is in on the conversation. And it’s more urgent when we can all feel despair out there, coming on like a cold front—some say an epidemic of loneliness or melancholy.

    1 March 2024, 12:00 am
  • 44 minutes 6 seconds
    The Rebel’s Clinic

    Frantz Fanon is our interest in this podcast. The man had charisma across the board in a short life and a long afterlife. A black man from the Caribbean, he went to France, first as a soldier to help free the French from Germany, then to become a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, and then to North Africa to serve a revolution against France in Algeria. Along the way, he wrote about politics with the touch of a poet.

    Adam Shatz.

    To this day, when the world talks about healing itself, Frantz Fanon hovers and gets quoted among the giants of modern thought about race and justice, about post-colonial wisdom, if there is such a thing. So how to draw on Fanonism anew and test it in the real emergencies of a divided world in the 2020s? Adam Shatz is our idea of a public intellectual of the widest range, and all the while, it turns out he’s been hooked on Frantz Fanon and gathering string for his big new book: The Rebel’s Clinic. Readers will feel an uncanny resonance between Frantz Fanon’s time in the 1950s and the cruel news of the 2020s: at the U.S. border with Mexico, to take one of many examples, and of course the killing field of Gaza, between Israelis and Palestinians.

    15 February 2024, 9:05 pm
  • 42 minutes 37 seconds
    Algorithmic Anxiety

    The question is how digital tech picks and chooses the content that comes to your phones and your brain, or, as Kyle Chayka puts it in a brave new book Filterworld: “how algorithms flattened culture.” What is the chance that devices that know your likes and dislikes better than you do are ever going to surprise you or teach you? What’s the tilt, over time, of an information system that’s tuned to the smiley face?

    Kyle Chayka with Chris.

    The joke version is that the algorithm walks into the bar and the bartender asks, “What would you like?” And of course, the algorithm answers, without thinking, “I’ll have what everyone else is having.” Kyle Chayka seems to have answered the question why TikTok voices and Instagram faces are so uniform, why AirBnB is showing what looks like the same room for rent all over the planet, why pop music is down to one super-singer who can fill stadiums all over the earth, for an Eras tour that could go on forever. We’re talking about algorithmic culture in a brave new world.

    1 February 2024, 11:55 pm
  • 39 minutes 53 seconds
    The Humbling of Harvard

    Oldest and far the richest among American universities, Harvard is the apex, in some sense, of American intellectualism, and it will be a long time figuring out just how it lost a big game it didn’t seem to know it was playing: a high-stakes free for all, it turned out to be, with poisonous words like plagiarism and anti-Semitism threaded through the media coverage and then in airborne ad banners and other blunt instruments.

    Diana Eck and Randall Kennedy.

    Suddenly, the president of Harvard—a black woman, as chance would have it—resigned her job under pressure, as if to confirm that something serious had indeed happened. But what in the world was the Harvard fight about? And was this the beginning or the end of a great battle?

    18 January 2024, 11:54 pm
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