Brad Listi is a maverick. Not in the fakey politician sense, nor in the Tom Cruise sense; I use that word because he nearly always does the unexpected thing, and virtually anything he does is of interest. That makes him an old-fashioned maverick, a question mark to watch.
Listi is the author of two books, and is one of the founders of the Nervous Breakdown, but he is perhaps best known as the host of a long-running podcast, Otherppl. Through this venture, he has interviewed a staggering variety of writers, artists, and thinkers. His output is as rich and extensive as the Paris Review’s interview archive. For Otherppl, Listi creates longform interviews, which inevitably veer off into interesting directions and refuse organization. He is one of the only radio/podcast professionals I’ve ever listened to who is unafraid of using dead air to emphasize what he has to say. I’ve never been sure what the spaces in his monologues are for: whether he’s asking the audience to think, or whether he’s taking a moment so that he can think.
Because interviewing is a job Brad does so well, I was nervous about posing questions to him. But—and perhaps I should have known this would happen—my standard questions brewed unexpected, interesting results.
Tell me about how you hate books.
Hate seems like a strong word. I don’t find myself hating books, to be honest. And I don’t find myself loving books all that often, either. I’m generally fine with books. I feel like I have a healthy relationship with books. I’m not prone to extremes, I guess? I’m not inclined to be super-critical of works that aren’t suited to my taste. In my head I just think It’s not for me. I’m also not great at being an enthusiast. It’s not that I’m completely dead inside; it’s just that I can’t seem to utterly give myself over to fandom. I’m the same way with sports. I can cheer for a team, but never with total abandon. I won’t wear a jersey, for example. I won’t paint my face. I’m not a face painter. I also don’t get angry about the other team.
I’m a picky reader, too. Really picky. I marvel at people who can pick up just about any old book and read it and enjoy it. I can’t do that. If I don’t have a powerful experience with a book, if I’m not really drawn to it and don’t have the sense that I need to be reading it right now, forget it. I lose interest and put it down. This happens with around 80 to 90 percent of books I pick up. I don’t view it as being the fault of the authors in question. I don’t blame them. If I blame anyone, I blame myself and my limitations as a reader.
That’s interesting – a picky reader who doesn’t have particular hatred for anything.
I contain multitudes.
Are there any books that bother you?
I read a lot of books about Buddhism, mindfulness, spirituality, and so on. I feel a little embarrassed to admit this but also feel that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. What I’ve found is that it’s a very hard thing to write about. As a reader I can often find myself getting frustrated. I’ve read dozens of books in this genre and many are very good but even more, in my view, are mediocre or worse. I think I’m prone to more frustration with these kinds of books because I’ve read so many of them and know what I want.
Over time, interestingly, I’ve found that many of the best books in this category are derived from transcripts. The teacher/writer gives a talk, or does a Q&A, or a series of Q&As, and records them, and transcribes them, and then edits that text and turns it into a book. I think there’s something about the immediacy and vitality of the spoken word that is better suited to this kind of material. You sit down to compose something in a more formal sense—and I’ve tried this—and everything winds up getting shitty in a hurry. You think to yourself: I sound like an asshole.
I never thought of that. Why do you think Q&A books are better?
Maybe because there’s a higher degree of formality to the writing process. It’s not as spontaneous. It’s slower. There’s more room for intrusive thinking to creep in. Self-consciousness, and so on. I think it’s easy to come across as didactic, annoying, confused when you start delving into things like human suffering and the ultimate nature of reality. It’s hard to be clear, direct, true. The same, I suppose, can be said for any piece of writing, but it seems especially true in this genre.
I haven’t read many books in this genre, but my husband loved reading a book of interviews between Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman.
I interviewed Bernie Glassman for the podcast. This was years ago. We spoke by phone. He told me that he meditates for an hour every morning in a hot tub.
I enjoyed that book too, probably because it was derived from transcripts. I think it might be easier to talk about this stuff than to write about it.
Do you think what turns you off about certain books has colored your reading of other works?
I feel like I got off-topic a little, or undermined this entire interview from the start by saying that I don’t really “hate” any books. I don’t really have super-strong, emotional opinions about books or art, and if I do, I don’t tend to trust those opinions.
Why avoid emotional opinions?
If I get super-amped-up emotionally, my judgment tends to be clouded. That’s my sense of it.
I’ll give you an example. A couple of times recently on my podcast I’ve been talking to someone and the subject of comic books has come up. I’ve bemoaned the constant barrage of comic book movies and how Hollywood in particular, because it’s so lucrative, is constantly rolling out superhero stories, which to me feels overdone and even infantilizing, blah blah blah.
Here’s the thing: I don’t even know if I believe that. I guess what bothers me is how these stories shape the market. Because they’re so profitable, the demand is super-high, and it crowds out, to some degree, different kinds of narratives. It can get to feeling boring. All the superhero movies are essentially the same. We know the narrative, more or less.
And so on.
But do I sit around actually seething about this with any regularity? No. Not at all. I don’t care enough to seethe. It is what it is. I don’t even think about it hardly at all. And besides, nothing I say or do is going to have any impact on it. It’s fine. I don’t know. I honestly don’t care that much. And yet I’ve presented myself as caring a whole lot. I’m so full of shit. And I recognize it.
I guess what I’m saying is that I just feel silly, after the fact, for presenting my opinion so forcefully. It gives the impression that I’m super-solid in my thinking when the truth is that I’m anything but. The world is endlessly gray to me. I’m aware of how quickly things change, how endlessly my opinions are shifting, how useless they tend to be. I’ll probably, for example, should I ever re-read this interview down the road, regret and question and disagree with many of the things I’ve said here. I’ll read and think: Who is that?
Well, that’s the cool thing about interviews (as I’m sure you know) – they freeze a moment in time. I like an interview that asks what’s on the stove right now, rather than questions whose answers don’t change much from year to year. “Oh, wow, I used to eat ramen?”
I still eat ramen.
Do you think your taste in books has altered anything about your writing?
I haven’t yet figured out to how to address spiritual matters in my own work, matters which are so central to my daily life. I don’t feel entirely qualified, I suppose. I wouldn’t want to publish anything in this vein unless I felt I’d done it very well and had something genuinely useful to say. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
And I think I’m pretty committed (right now, anyway) to never publishing anything that isn’t written with the energy and vitality of the spoken word. I’m also committed to clarity. This will likely involve getting feedback from a few trusted readers prior to submission/publication. I don’t trust, at least not entirely, my ability to see and judge my own work. Especially if I’ve spent a long time with it.
What was the last book you read and recommended?
I recently recommended The Unsettlers by Mark Sundeen.
Sundeen, who also wrote an interesting book called The Man Who Quit Money, writes about people who live very unconventional lives—eccentrics, idealists, revolutionaries, zealots. In The Unsettlers he tells the stories of Americans who have chosen to live against the grain, sometimes off the grid, in a manner that responds to the excesses of capitalism and the perils of climate change, and so on.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I give them away. Because of the work that I do, podcasting and running an online lit mag, I get a ton of galleys. Too many, frankly. I gave away over 3,000 books a couple of years ago. I don’t have room for them. It actually gets stressful. I don’t like to throw books away. Sometimes I do, and I apologize to them silently as I drop them in the recycler. I apologize to the author.
I don’t really fetishize the book object. Sure, I have my favorite books, books that are deeply important to me, and I like to have them around. But otherwise my feeling is that books should be in circulation. They shouldn’t be accumulating on someone’s shelf for no reason. Nobody’s reading them! They’re just sitting there! Get them out into the world. Give them to someone. Give them to a used bookstore or a library and let them have a chance to find readers.
I used to fetishize the book object (well-said), and keep all kinds of books of no use to me, until I read John Fowles’s The Collector. It turned me off to collections of all kinds.
I’m not a hugely sentimental person by nature. If I’m going to be sentimental about something, it’s probably going to be my kids, some artwork they made or something, or, more likely, it’s going to be an experience I’ve had (probably with my kids). But that’s about it. Otherwise, I’m dead inside.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I can’t recall ever doing this, no. I can’t imagine why I would. I know it might sound heretical, but I don’t take books that seriously. It sounds ridiculous to me to get that angry about a book. But to each his own.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading four books at once. (This isn’t abnormal for me.) I’m reading Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle, Fragrant Palm Leaves by Thich Nhat Hanh, Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls, and Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. Here’s the truth: I’m enjoying all of them. I wouldn’t be reading them otherwise. I’m also not obsessed with any of them, which is to say I’m not staying up late, reading hundreds of pages at a time, and so on. The last book I read in that manner was, I think, How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan. I read it in a couple of days. It made me want to do psychedelics under the guidance of a medical professional or some kind of shaman. Do you know any good shamans?
We both live in LA. How do you not know any shamans?
I never leave my house.