Podcaster Taylor Gonda on bonding over pop-culture and reading the classics
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Taylor Gonda co-hosts and produces the Denver-based podcast These Things Matter, which features writers, filmmakers, musicians, academics, comedians and Taylor's mom engaging in wonky discussions about their guests' pop-cultural obsessions, which range from Superman to Wu-Tang Clan. Gonda and her co-host, local snarkmeister Kevin O'Brien, shared a victory when These Things Matter was named best podcast at the Westword Denver Web Awards. Each episode opens with a clip of the John Cusack soliloquy from High Fidelity that inspired both the podcast's title and the intensely personal nature of the minutiae-dissecting conversations contained in each episode. Gonda also produces Adam Cayton-Holland's podcast, My Dining Room Table. Westword recently caught up with Gonda -- who came to the interview endearingly prepared with tidy, careful notes -- to talk about her favorite books and the common goals of These Things Matter and Westword Book Club.
Westword: I've noticed that you don't discuss many books on These Things Matter. Do you think that books qualify more as high-culture than pop-culture?
Taylor Gonda: Books can definitely be pop-culture. When we first started, we were thinking there would be more books in general, but Kevin doesn't read very much.
Does he get cranky if there's a reading assignment?
I think he reads more than he lets on, but he's just not as well-read as, well, as I am or as some our guests are. It's also a matter of us wanting to be familiar with a topic before we talk about it.
How much research do you typically do for an episode?
Sometimes a lot, sometimes very little. It just depends on what the topic is. The Beatles episode didn't really require any research ahead of time.
Well, being alive in the twentieth century precludes the need for research. We're all pretty well-indoctrinated in Beatlemania.
Yeah, and it's like my whole life has been the Beatles, but for the Fugazi episode I had to listen to all their albums and read up about their biographies because I knew nothing about Fugazi.
Have any of the discussion topics on your podcast sparked a new interest or deepened an existing one?
Yeah, I mean, speaking of books, we're going to be talking a guy named William Dewey. He's a local writer, he's on the Narrators show a lot. He's talking to us about David Foster Wallace, so that's going to require some work. So far I've read that article he wrote about lobsters and I started reading Infinite Jest, but gave up.
Yeah, that book has defeated a lot of people; myself included. All those footnotes. I love his essays, though.
Yeah, we did a show on alternative comic books, but those were pretty quick reads. This is going to be our first really book-heavy show.
Infinite Jest is heavy in a very literal way. How long do you have between the selection of a topic and the podcast recording do you have for research?
Sometimes it's months in advance, sometimes it's the next day. Sometimes Kevin or I meet someone, have a conversation and say, "You need to be on the show" -- but they're only available the next day so we don't have much time to prepare.
Like when you guys have comedians from out of town.
Right. It's hard when someone doesn't feel strongly about their topic. If they're not obsessed, then it's difficult to get to the life stories and all that stuff we like to talk about.
It's similar to this column, except we only talk about books.
Which I think is awesome, by the way.
Thank you. I think there's something interesting that happens when you talk to people about books they love, because you get to know a lot about someone without actually asking them anything personal. You just naturally learn things that people likely wouldn't reveal in any other context, but you don't make anybody uncomfortable. Unless you uncover some literacy issue or secret hate-group affiliation, nobody really minds talking about what they read.
People like talking about what about what they like, no matter what.
Well, with that in mind, what are you currently reading?
Well, I am currently reading Les Misérables. Last summer, I gave myself the goal of reading Moby Dick -- and I did. I really like the idea of reading a gigantic book in the summer. I have more free time, so I like to take a really long classic novel and dedicate myself to working my way through it.
That's awesome. I always talk about wanting to brush up on the literary canon, but I never do. I love Charles Dickens, though, and he's pretty wordy.
See, I haven't read much Dickens.
I think people misunderstand the structure of Dickens novels. They think his books are bloated because he was paid by the word, but his books were serialized stories released in newspapers. When it's all collected together, it looks like this behemoth, but it was probably more manageable to Victorian readers who were just getting a few chapters every week.
I think Victor Hugo was the same way, he was very progressive and politically engaged. There's an element of reportage to his writing, he's reporting in great detail what France was like at this time in history, while at the same time exalting France and Paris in particular. Hugo and Dickens were also both motivated to write by the poverty and injustice they witnessed in their cities.
Were you a fan of the musical before the movie?
This is terrible: I have a degree in theater, but I've never seen the musical performed live, which I know will get me scoffed at by other theater people. People say it's the musical to see for people who say they don't like musicals. I almost wish the musical wasn't so popular, even though I saw the movie version and I liked it. I think people don't actually seek out the novel because they've seen the movie so they think, "Oh yeah, I know that story," but they're missing everything but the basic beats of the narrative. The novel has so much more to offer. This beautiful story of grace and forgiveness, and presenting religion in a way that feels both progressive and traditional at the same time. This Bishop forgives the peasant who steals from him, which changes the peasant's life. The compassion was really compelling to me, and I just wanted to delve into that more. There are very powerful moral lessons in the book, but Hugo doesn't beat you over the head with it; it's contained in this story of Jean Valjean learning how to be a good man, learning what it means to treat your fellow man with dignity.
What made you want to commit to reading these sprawling classics?
I like reading the classics as an adult. As a kid, you're supposed to read them and analyze them. I think forcing analysis oftentimes detracts from the reading experience. Now that I've lived more life, I think I understand better what they're trying to say and it's more powerful.
It's much more fun to read when you're not parsing through the text for motifs.
I just want a good story. I think the story should be paramount, and then you can add symbolism and literary conceits. My favorite kinds of books are one where the structure is interesting, like in Heart of Darkness, which might be my favorite book. I think Joseph Conrad also published serially in a magazine. The whole story starts on a boat, on the Thames, waiting for the tide to go down. There's the narrator who's telling the story of Marlow, who in turn is telling the story of Mr. Kurtz, so it's an unreliable narrator relating the story thirdhand.
Conrad is also really linguistically dense and heavily symbolic.
It is, which normally I might not go for, but the story is really compelling, too. I remember I first read it around the same time I was discovering existentialism and something about this journey on the Congo river and into the darkest parts of your own soul just clicked for me at the time. I got into reading on my own because I transferred to a high school in Texas, and I hated the way they taught English there, like they were just preparing you a standardized test. So I got into reading stuff on my own and I hated everything I had to read in class, like Hemingway and Catcher in the Rye.
I don't think they should teach Catcher in the Rye in schools. You're robbing thirteen-year-olds of their rebellious stage.
I think it's the same way with the Beat poets. You should find out about them from your older brother or something. Academia kind of misses the point. So yeah, I got really into plays, too. I liked Beckett and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, who was my favorite playwright for a while. I'm not as into him as I used to be, not only because his writing is very symbolic and academic, but also because he writes with an agenda. In each of his stories he has a character who serves no other purpose than to just be the mouthpiece for his beliefs. I also used to love Tom Robbins who does the same thing, where I'm reading and I'll think, "You are literally lecturing to me right now."
Tom Robbins does experiment with structure quite a bit.
That's true, but he also doesn't know how to end anything. None of his books end in a satisfying way, they just sort of end. It's almost like he doesn't want to stop, but the book has to just end. But reading Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates changed my life.
Check These Things Matter every week for new episodes. Gonda and O'Brien will also record a live episode at Mutiny Now Bookstore at 9 p.m. Friday, August 23, as part of the upcoming High Plains Comedy Festival.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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