Between the pages
Life in the English department inspires radio dialogues with literary greats
By Jim Bisco
This bookworm beginning has culminated in a "Bookworm" career—that sobriquet serves as the title of a weekly public radio series, which is produced and hosted by Silverblatt and is now in its 13th year and broadcast to more than 600,000 listeners from New York to Hawaii. The show is an engagingly intelligent 30-minute conversation between the extremely well-read host and highly accomplished authors of literary fiction and poetry.
Since its debut on a Santa Monica, California public radio station in 1989, Bookworm has featured more than 500 writers from Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison. Guests enthuse about their on-air experiences in quotes usually found on the backs of book jackets. Joyce Carol Oates has described the show as "surprisingly intelligent, unfailingly interesting, guided by its host’s methodical, contemplative style." Norman Mailer has bluntly characterized the host as "the best reader in America," and Susan Sontag has summarized, "For those of us who care about literature, Michael Silverblatt is a national treasure."
His penchant for escorting literary giants from print to air was developed during his years at UB, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in English. For the wide-eyed book enthusiast who originally yearned to become a novelist, Silverblatt found himself in a literary Disneyland at UB.
"I suspect my gift in talking to writers developed during my undergraduate years," he explains during a recent interview from his apartment in Los Angeles. "Those days shaped the rest of my life. It was an extraordinary time to be in school in terms of the cultural turmoil that was largely taking place on college campuses—notoriously so on [UB’s] campus. At the time, they had the most extraordinary English Department you could ever imagine. There’s never been any place since that I could say I’d rather have gone to school. It was an absolutely staggering place with writers, critics, theorists and scholars."
Silverblatt gushes over a faculty that included John Barth, Leslie Fiedler, Donald Barthelme, Dwight Macdonald, Robert Creeley and Samuel Delaney. "And still I’m not mentioning the people who were there but not yet famous. Robert Hass, who later became U.S. Poet Laureate, had not yet published any poetry while he was teaching the Victorian novel at UB. Carl Dennis was just starting to publish his poetry. (UB) was not just a place where famous people came, but a place where people became famous."
Silverblatt also notes the constant stream of visiting literary greats. "Because we had a huge collection of James Joyce papers, during the summers we saw Hugh Kenner, Richard Ellmann, Helene Cixous. The William Carlos Williams papers and the legendary outsized presence of Charles Olson attracted the most extravagant collection of visiting poets, hipsters and madmen. Gregory Corso once crashed at my house. I got to stay overnight at John Barth’s place when John Hawkes was visiting him. Michel Foucault opened a center for criminal investigation. Albert Cook, the [English Department] chairman then, wanted and got as many writers as scholars. It was the longest and best party I’ve ever attended. Talking to these people in informal and unlikely circumstances created the man who does Bookworm."
Among the wealth of literary talent at UB, the 48-year-old radio personality calls Macdonald his hero. "He would say over and over to me that one should not become a scholar academic, but that what I should become is what he’s become—a literary journalist. That really shaped my life. My friendships with people from Buffalo continues well after I left. Just the night before last I did a public interview at Columbia University with John Barth and we remembered our Buffalo days. A book of letters by Dwight Macdonald was just published and he mentions that of all the places where he’s taught over the years—including Yale and Harvard—he never encountered a faculty or students like [those] in the English Department at Buffalo."
Coming from what he describes as a solid middle-class upbringing, Silverblatt says that his mother started to cry when she arrived at UB with her 16-year-old son in September 1969. "It was so different from her or anyone else’s picture of what college life would be. There was so much ferment in the air—women were nursing their babies, dogs were running around, people were splashing in the fountain, their bodies were painted. It was like a festival."
He originally entered UB as a math major, a compromise with his parents, who wanted him to get a business degree. That quickly failed to add up for him when he encountered the "wild creativeness" of the people in the English Department. "It made me realize that there was nothing else that I remotely cared about as much."
He was arts editor for the Spectrum for three years straight and began his radio association with WBFO where he befriended fellow student Terry Gross, who would become host of National Public Radio’s celebrated Fresh Air series. "I think her influence on Bookworm and the way I go about things is very strong," he says.
In pursuing an English major, Silverblatt concentrated his energies on becoming a novelist. "One of the things you go to college for is to find out what you’re not good at; it turned out that I was not good at novel writing. What I was good at was reading and talking about books. Who knew that one could have a career at this. Everyone who was close to me was very worried. The standard line on Michael Silverblatt was, ‘Yes, yes, you are brilliant. We all agree. But what are you going to do with your life?’ For a long time, it was a big enigma. To me too. I knew what I loved but I didn’t know how to live in the world doing what I loved."
Disillusioned with theory and academia, he dropped out of graduate school to try publishing in New York City, and soon after, screenwriting in Los Angeles. He succeeded in getting several scripts optioned but supported himself mainly by working in bookstores, and as a freelance writer and film publicist.
Silverblatt finally found a way to his bookish career goal by happy accident 14 years ago. "I was attending a dinner party with one of my [publicist] clients, [the late] Ray Sharkey. And I got offered this show." It came about as Ruth Seymour, general manager of KCRW-FM, Santa Monica, engaged Silverblatt in a conversation about Russian literature, she having just returned from a trip to Russia. The result was scintillating enough for Seymour, before the end of dinner, to offer Silverblatt his own literary program, which is now broadcast on nearly 50 stations.
Silverblatt has been acclaimed for his ability to draw insightful conversation from guests primarily accustomed to expression in print. His preparation is staggering. His apartment is stacked from floor to ceiling with thousands of books. His research sometimes calls for reading more than a dozen books a week for periods of six hours a day, taking public transportation to allow more time for reading.
"I read like a madman, for fun, for beauty, for wisdom, in particular to hear my own language written in new and original ways," he says. "I want listeners to hear the new and the obscure, the deeply serious and the brilliantly trivial. I hope that Bookworm reminds people of the crazy fun of abstract conversation, reminds them of what thinking out loud sounds like. I want to return listeners to the days before sound bites, to a time when ideas and opinions weren’t predigested. If this makes the show sound, at times, like a mad tea party, I think that’s good."