Close Readings

Our pioneering podcast subscription: two contributors explore an area of literature through a selection of key works, providing an introductory grounding like no other. Listen to extracts from each episodes, and some full free episodes, here.

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Human Conditions: ‘The Golden Notebook’ by Doris Lessing

Pankaj Mishra and Adam Shatz, 10 July 2024

10 July 2024 · 12mins

Pankaj Mishra joins Adam Shatz to discuss The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing’s formally brilliant and startlingly frank 1962 novel. In her portrait of ‘free women’ – unmarried, creatively ambitious, politically engaged – Lessing wrestles with the breakdown of Stalinism, settler colonialism and traditional gender roles. Pankaj and Adam explore the lived experiences that shaped the novel, its feminist reception and why Pankaj considers it to be one of the best representations of ‘the strange uncapturable sensation of living from day to day’.

4 July 2024 · 14mins

Tristram Shandy was such a hit in its day that you could buy tea trays, watch cases and cushions decorated with its most famous characters and scenes. In this episode Clare and Colin look at the ways in which Sterne’s comic masterpiece stays true to the traditions of satire while drawing on Cervantes, Rabelais, Locke and the fashionable notion of ‘sentiment’ to advance a new kind of nuanced social comedy.

Political Poems: 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen

Seamus Perry and Mark Ford, 10 July 2024

28 June 2024 · 36mins

Wilfred Owen wrote ‘Strange Meeting’ in the early months of 1918, shortly after being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh, where he had met the stridently anti-war Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon's poetry of caustic realism quickly found its way into Owen’s work, where it merged with the high romantic sublime of his other great influences, Keats and Shelley.

Among the Ancients II: Lucian

Emily Wilson and Thomas Jones, 10 July 2024

24 June 2024 · 14mins

The broad theme of this series, truth and lies, was a favourite subject of Lucian of Samosata, the last of our Greek-language authors. His razor-sharp satire was a model for Erasmus, Voltaire and Swift. Emily and Tom share some of their favourite excerpts from A True History and other works – with trips to the moon, boundary-pushing religious scepticism and wildly improbable but not technically untrue readings of Homer.

Medieval LOLs: The Second Shepherds' Pageant

Irina Dumitrescu and Mary Wellesley, 10 July 2024

18 June 2024 · 35mins

In their quest for the medieval sense of humour Mary and Irina come to The Second Shepherds’ Pageant, a 15th-century reimagining of the nativity as domestic comedy that’s less about the birth of Jesus and more about sheep rustling, taxes, the weather and the frustrations of daily life.

Human Conditions: ‘The Intimate Enemy’ by Ashis Nandy

Pankaj Mishra and Adam Shatz, 10 July 2024

10 June 2024 · 13mins

Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy is a study of the psychological toll of colonialism on both the coloniser and colonised, showing how Western conceptions of masculinity and adulthood served as tools of conquest. Pankaj Mishra joins Adam to unpack Nandy’s subtle and unexpected lines of thought and to explain why the book remains as innovative today as it did in 1983.

On Satire: 'The Dunciad' by Alexander Pope

Clare Bucknell and Colin Burrow, 10 July 2024

4 June 2024 · 12mins

Nobody hated better than Alexander Pope. Despite his reputation as the quintessentially refined versifier of the early 18th century, he was also a class A, ultra-pure, surreal, visionary mega-hater, and The Dunciad is his monument to the hate he felt for almost all the other writers of his time.

28 May 2024 · 35mins

Mark and Seamus discuss Shelley’s angry, violent poem written in response to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, in which a demonstration in favour of parliamentary reform was attacked by local yeomanry, leaving 18 people dead and hundreds injured.

Among the Ancients II: Plato

Emily Wilson and Thomas Jones, 10 July 2024

24 May 2024 · 11mins

Plato’s Symposium, his philosophical dialogue on love, or eros, was probably written around 380 BCE, but it’s set in 416, during the uneasy truce between Athens and Sparta in the middle of the Peloponnesian War. Socrates and his friends, having had a heavy evening the night before, decide to go easy on the wine and instead take turns making speeches in praise of love – at least until Alcibiades turns up, very late and very drunk.

Medieval LOLs: Dame Syrith

Irina Dumitrescu and Mary Wellesley, 10 July 2024

18 May 2024 · 34mins

Dame Syrith, a story of lust, deception and a mustard-eating dog, is medieval humour at its silliest and most troubling. Mary and Irina explore the surprising representations of old women, magic and consent in fabliaux, the poem’s possible role as a pedagogical tool, and medieval audiences’ love for the procuress trope.


Human Conditions: ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ by V.S. Naipaul

Pankaj Mishra and Adam Shatz, 10 July 2024

10 May 2024 · 10mins

Pankaj Mishra joins Adam Shatz to discuss A House for Mr Biswas, a pathbreaking work of postcolonial literature and a particularly powerful influence on Pankaj himself. They explore Naipaul’s fraught relationship to modernity, and the tensions between his attachment to individual freedom and his insistence on the constraints imposed by history. 

On Satire: John Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’

Clare Bucknell and Colin Burrow, 10 July 2024

4 May 2024 · 13mins

In The Beggar’s Opera we enter a society turned upside down, where private vices are seen as public virtues, and the best way to survive is to assume the worst of everyone. The only force that can subvert this state of affairs is romantic love – an affection, we discover, that satire finds hard to cope with.

28 April 2024 · 36mins

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s deeply disturbing 1847 poem about a woman escaping slavery and killing her child was written to shock its intended white female readership to the abolitionist cause. Mark and Seamus look at the origins of the poem and its story, and its place among other abolitionist narratives of the time.

Among the Ancients II: Pindar and Bacchylides

Emily Wilson and Thomas Jones, 10 July 2024

24 April 2024 · 11mins

In the fifth episode of Among the Ancients II we turn to Greek lyric, focusing on Pindar’s victory odes, considered a benchmark for the sublime since antiquity, and the vivid, narrative-driven dithyrambs of Bacchylides.

Medieval LOLs: Fabliaux

Mary Wellesley and Irina Dumitrescu, 10 July 2024

18 April 2024 · 41mins

Fabliaux were short, witty tales originating in northern France between the 12th and 14th centuries, often featuring crafty characters in rustic settings and overwhelmingly concerned with money and sex. In this episode Irina and Mary look at two of these comic verses, both containing surprisingly explicit sexual language, and consider the ways in which they influenced Boccaccio, Chaucer and others.