Feb 8 • 1HR 3M

#81: Kevin Birmingham on Where Great Books Come From

Cognitive Revolution | Kevin's first book told the story of James Joyce's Ulysses. His latest looks at Crime and Punishment. We talk about how books like these come into existence.

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Welcome to Against Habit. My name is Cody Kommers, and in this show I talk to experts, authors, and scientists about the ways we can rethink the habits, ideas, and assumptions we take with us through daily life. Mainstream productivity culture tells us that optimal habits are the best way to solve any behavioral problem. But I think in our veneration of habits, we've overlooked something crucial. Many of our deepest experiences of creativity, connection, and meaning come from breaking out of our habitual rug and engaging in life in a new way. Exploring that idea is what this show is all about. (Note: This show was previously "Cognitive Revolution")

This is Cognitive Revolution, my show about the personal side of the intellectual journey. Each week, I interview an eminent scientist, writer, or academic about the experiences that shaped their ideas. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts.

This is a conversation I’ve been wanting to have for a long time. I met Kevin several years ago, and it was a big moment for me. This was the first time I’d ever met a real author. Of course I said something foolish. Of course he has no recollection of such foolish statements. I’m a huge admirer of his first book, The Most Dangerous Book, which tells the story behind Ulysses—one of the most controversial manuscripts of all time. It’s got an incredible cast of characters from James Joyce to Hemingway to Ezra Pound to Sylvia Beach. That book really drew me into to Kevin’s style of writing and the way he’s able to bring social analysis to bear on literary and intellectual themes.

Kevin Birmingham has a PhD in English from Harvard. He actually studied under Louis Menand, whom I’ve also had on the show and is one of my all-time favorite authors. In this conversation, I definitely ask Kevin about Menand’s influence—a bit toward the end. Kevin has won numerous awards including the PEN New England Award and the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. The occasion for our conversation today is the publication of his new book, which came out in November 2021. It’s called The Sinner and the Saint, and it tells the story of the creative process behind Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment. Since it’s a Russian novel, the creative process entails a great deal of suffering. The book also ties in the true story of how Dostoevsky’s thriller was inspired by the real life crimes of a Frenchman, Pierre François Lacenaire. (I’d like to imagine that all French criminal masterminds are named Pierre François.)

Of course I’m a cognitive scientist by training, so I don’t have a lot of background in literary analysis. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve enjoyed Kevin’s books so much, helping me, as a layman, to understand books—at least aspects of books anyway—that I wouldn’t otherwise have the tools to grasp. There’s a passage I especially love from Kevin’s recent book: “One measure of Dostoevsky’s talent is that he could make something as small as a wink turn all the gears in a complex relationship. Porfiry’s tiniest movement is either an involuntary twitch or a cunning signal. Either it means nothing or it spells out Raskolnikov’s doom. He doesn’t know how to read it, and he can’t even tell if it happened. Raskolnikov wonders if all of his blinks look like winks, if the inspector’s eyes always gleam on a horizon between empty sky and unsounded fathoms. He begins to scrutinize every detail: the way the inspector positions his body, the tone of his voice, the way he emphasized the word she. In Dostoevsky’s murder story, the detective is the mystery.”

At any rate, talking to Kevin is like having a private seminar with your favorite professor. He’s able to spin some really great answers. It was a fun conversation, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you!


Kevin’s Three Books:

Like this episode? Here’s another one to check out:

The New Kommers
#56: Louis Menand on How to Write about Everything
Listen now (77 min) | This is Cognitive Revolution, my show about the personal side of the intellectual journey. Each week, I interview an eminent scientist, writer, or academic about the experiences that shaped their ideas. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts…
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