I hate going to sleep in silence. This isn’t uncommon, I know. Plenty of people put on soothing music before getting in bed or buy fans that they point away from their bodies, just for the noise. But my nightly soundtrack has always been a more eclectic collection of sounds.
Last year, lonely in a foreign country, I would turn out the light and put on Bright Eyes’ “Lua,” so Conor Oberst would croak over a shimmering guitar through my iPhone’s speakers. In high school, too tired after a busy day to keep my eyes open yet restlessly incapable of falling sleep, I would put on shows like Friends, close my phone, and just listen to the drama unfurling among our favorite twentysomethings. I distinctly remember coming home from my first time sleeping over at a friend’s house because I didn’t want to go to sleep without the unmistakably upbeat music from the boombox that sat on my white bedside table at home. And when I was really little? My mom would sing me and my sister songs from Annieafter she tucked us in.
But my most recent fix? Book Fight.
A podcast featuring writers and Temple professors Mike Ingram and Tom McCallister, each hour-long episode of Book Fight begins with an old blues song and the show’s tagline: “Tough love for literature.” Ostensibly, the show is a space for the two writers to talk about a book, story, or essay of their choosing, using the work as a jumping off point for discussions about literature, writing, and literary and popular culture in general. In their earlier episodes, dating back to 2012, the hosts stayed generally true to their initial aim: each installment either features a lengthy discussion of a usually contemporary book or consists of Mike and Tom answering listener questions about writing and the writing life.
As the show’s run has gone on, however, the nature of the episodes has changed. Where they once featured light-hearted yet focused literary discussion, the content of the discussions has become much more meandering in a manner both self-aware and even humorously self-effacing. In an episode about the famous Chekhov story “Lady with a Little Dog,” Tom expresses his initial nervousness about reading a “big time famous story” before declaring his opinion: “my thought is … pretty good.” Mike laughs and says, “Good thought.” They talk about the story for a while longer, but the highlight of the episode is almost certainly their forays into the wide world of Yahoo Answers and some of the absurd responses to various iterations of the question, “Should I cheat on my partner?”
In episodes like that one, the tangents take over; in others, the tangents dominate from the get-go. Not only are Mike and Tom clearly aware of their tendency to ramble (“Should we talk about the book now?” “Let’s not and say we did.”), the tangents clearly have appeal, as shown by the show’s uninterrupted weekly output since its inception. (“This is what the people want, Tom: hearing us jibber-jabber about a bunch of goddamn nonsense). The description of their episode covering the graphic novel Killing and Dying is particularly wonderful:
Look, here’s the thing: These episodes can’t all be winners. Sometimes we’re tired, and scattered, and overworked, and we spend upwards of ten minutes talking about onions? On the other hand, maybe that sort of thing is exactly what you like. Who can say? It’s difficult to quantify our particular desires.
The best episodes reach a point, however, at which it’s impossible to ascertain where the literary discussion ends and the tangents begin, where the intelligence and the humor blend seamlessly into a fusion of pure genius. And their chef d’oeuvre? The Summer of Shorts, a sequence of eight episodes where Mike and Tom talk about two different shorts each week: a favorite short story and a different form of lower wear (i.e. Bermuda shorts, swim trunks, skorts etc.). The Summer of Shorts would actually be a perfect introduction for any Book Fight novice. Each episode exhibits the perfect blend of thoughtful literary discussions and inane digressions on the career of comedian Martin Short or potential jobs in which an employee would be able to forego wearing pants. The whole season embodies everything nonsensically wonderful about Book Fight.
Last summer, bored at home and dreading my departure for college, I had plenty of free time to pore over the backlist of this show that had hooked me (an archive I’m still mining to this day). On evenings when the girlfriend I otherwise spent all my time with was working, evenings I intended to devote to reading or writing or otherwise general self-improvement, I often ended up listening to several old Book Fight episodes in a row. Sometimes I’d listen while playing Tetris on my computer, but other times I’d just lie in my bed and listen to Mike and Tom chat until I fell asleep. Though nearly a year later I know longer get to be quite as lazy, I do still frequently listen to Book Fight aloud as I fall asleep.
No, I don’t have dreams about my favorite writer-podcasters, but I do think about them and just why I like their show so much. But how strange really is my fascination with Mike and Tom’s “jibber-jabber?” When Mike and Tom talk, they talk as if no one is listening. Each time I listen to Book Fight, I’m peeking for an hour into the lives of two humans with lives both completely real and completely separate from mine. I feel like a more intrusive version of Jimmy Stewart at the beginning Rear Window when he stares across the courtyard through his binoculars into his neighbors’ daily comings and goings. At first, there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly sensational about any of their lives—or Mike and Tom’s, for that matter. The fascination comes in the fact that under normally socially acceptable circumstances, neither of us should have access to anyone else’s lives. The distinction is that Jimmy Stewart obtains this access covertly. But me and the other viewers of Rear Window or listeners of Book Fight? We’re taking advantage of a privileged look into the worlds of other because we, by nature of these media, have been permitted to.
When I laugh at Tom’s tirade about the time he was refused a plain cheeseburger after winning a limo ride and McDonald’s lunch in middle school, I laugh for more than the sheer comedy of his story. I laugh because Tom, in a candid tone usually reserved for friends rather than strangers, might as well be telling the story directly to me. He’s doing the same thing that draws people to great films, great fiction, great art: we want to get as close as we can to being inside someone else’s world. Tom, in this moment, has let me into both his history and his present, and I’m happy to be along for the ride.
In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke confesses to Julie Delpy that he’s sick of his own company: “I have never been anywhere where I haven’t been. I’ve never had a kiss where I wasn’t one the kissers. I think that’s why so many people hate themselves. They are sick to death of being around themselves.” Hawke touches on a fundamentally insurmountable obstacle of the human experience: each of us has access only to our own interior life. And this urge to watch movies like Before Sunrise of people just talking, to eavesdrop on a conversation at the next table over, to pause just long enough to confirm that your hallmate on the other side of that door is indeed having sex—perhaps it’s all just the manifestation of our curiosity to confirm that the world contains other people with lives just as rich and varied as our own.
A few weeks ago, I went into Brooklyn to hear a work friend from home read from her newly published book. It was a lot of travel for just an hour and a half of reading and a picture to send back home, but it was wonderful—necessary, perhaps—to leave Princeton’s “Orange Bubble” for a time, to get out of my own head and out into the world as a reminder that people other than me are out there, doing their own things.
Sitting in Penn Station waiting for the track announcement for the 10:11 departure of the Northeast Corridor line back to Princeton, I listened to a woman sing along to the song on the station’s speakers as I devoured a steak burrito. I stole a glance behind me to see her and her son sitting together, both wearing red Dodgers shirts. The song began to swell, and the woman stopped singing and said, “Here comes the best part.” I don’t remember the song, but I do remember understanding why the mother sitting with her son would think that swell was indeed the best part. “For letting me have that,” she said, “I won’t even sing the rest of the song.” They were sitting behind me, but I like to imagine she was hugging him. Listening to this snatch of dialogue, hearing undeniable evidence of two people existing apart from me, I felt connected to the pair through the sheer fact that we were all three of us here together, living. Our otherwise parallel lives for this one moment on a Friday evening had just barely intersected, but that was enough. I saw the mother and son again later that night; they were getting off the train in Metuchen.
How wonderful it is to be alive—to know that we are all here, occupying the same moments as everyone else, breathing, blinking, living. And even more wonderful, if just for the briefest of moments, to observe this beautiful balance of separation and connection, and to feel it.
It can be easy to forget how the world is so much broader than our own little frames, so full of otherness and sameness, of others just like ourselves. When I fall asleep to noise, whether to a hipster talk-singing about loneliness or to the inane conversations of two chatty white guys, I realize it’s not just about the noise for me. It’s about unconsciously feeling like I’m still connected to that broad world, even when I’m at my most solemn and most alone.