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Props for ‘Notebook on Cities and Culture’: In Praise of Colin Marshall

July 25, 2012

[Note: I've updated this post with the link to Marshall's Kickstarter portal. Check it out here!]

In the last couple of months, whenever I’ve been in the presence of someone who seems, like me, to dig conversation, books, and contemporary American culture, it’s almost never been long before I recommend that they check out Colin Marshall’s podcast, ‘Notebook on Cities and Culture’, which I consider to be one of the most engaged, interesting, and sophisticated interview podcasts around today. I first discovered the podcast on a whim. While spending several long days in the bowels of the Bundesarchiv this April, I found myself transcribing dozens and dozens of pages of documents in German onto my computer, and needed something to help pass the time while I did this mundane task. Because my computer is relatively old, with a small hard drive, and because I tend to get most of my music from Spotify these days, my music collection was, well, weak, and I wasn’t willing to tempt fate by having by German hosts visited by an inquiry from copyright authorities after I tried to download some new albums or audiobooks illegally. More than that, the archive itself lacked wi-fi, meaning that I’d have to load up while at my apartment.

That meant it was time to search for podcasts – something engaging and interesting that I could listen to for ours, whether walking from the bus stop to the archive or while poring over the details of German-managed forests in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. Stumbling around iTunes, I discovered what sounded like a modest idea at first. In 2007, Marshall, a twenty-something graduate of UC Santa Barbara, had begun hosting another, similar show, The Marketplace of Ideas, on public radio in Santa Barbara. But by 2011, Marshall decided – partly on a whim but also as a sort-of-career-move, from what I understand, to move to Los Angeles for the next version of his interviewing and cultural curation enterprises. The result was Notebook on Cities and Culture, a show that, in Marshall’s words, is ‘a twice-weekly long-form conversation with cultural creators, internationalists, and observers of the urban scene all around Los Angeles and beyond.’

Colin Marshall, auteur of ‘Notebook on Cities and Culture’

Since listening, I’ve been hooked. Marshall is a great interviewer. He has the ability to take the occasional narcissistic, or whiny-sounding guest, and sympathetically bring them out into someone richer and more compelling than they originally sounded like at first. The range of topics covered on the podcast – contemporary Japanese film, the decline and fall of French cuisine, the history of wine corks, urbanism in Los Angeles, interviews with other cultural curators like Jessa Crispin at Bookslut - never fails to impress, but neither does the depth and preparation of Marshall’s interviews, either. In short, it’s exactly the kind of intellectual and sophisticated but still eminently accessible conversation about books and contemporary culture that I had been looking for for a long time.

For example, in a recent interview with David Kipen, the founder of Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, touches on a lot of big topics – the future of reading in the United States, the impact of e-readers on bookstores, the future uses and/or existence of bookstores as physical platforms or meeting sites in cities – through the focused lens of Kipen’s particular store, a bookstore and lending library in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sitting around in British seminar rooms with crusty English academics under steel-grey skies, it can, occasionally, be easy to slip into a mood of gloom and doom when it comes to the future of books in Western cultures today.

‘Notebook on Cities and Culture’ helped me re-discover LA. Next stop: San Francisco and Portland?

But with his LA-specific lens, Marshall is able to show us how the future of reading – while indeed impacted tremendously by e-readers – might be found not in and around Russell Square, Cambridge, or Oxford, but rather in Spanish-language translations of Agatha Christie novels – in short, among working-class readers whose first language might be Korean, Spanish, or Punjabi. Look at the future of reading that way – as something to be promoted among immigrants and perhaps primarily in translation – and suddenly the traditional subjects we focus on in discussions of publication and reading – the kinds of writers whose books get reviewed in the TLS or the London Review of Booksor the publishing industry in New York – seem peripheral. Using Los Angeles as his lens to focus a broader discussion of culture, Marshall is frequently able to find interesting and compelling takes on topics that might elude more conventional members of the Brooklyn or Bay Area hipsterati. In short, in an age when, bizarrely, cultural critics see in nepotistically-cast, New York-centric, navel-gazing television shows the great message for American women, Marshall is a refreshing voice: outward looking, not the scion of Society, and based in Los Angeles, a city whose many charms once escaped me but Marshall helps to rediscover.

Given all of this, I’m happy to admit that Marshall’s podcast has formed a good chunk of my everyday soundtrack when walking around from errand to errand in Dushanbe. But part of why I’m writing about him now is that today, Marshall is launching a Kickstarter campaign for $3,000 to help fund the second season of Notebook on Cities on Culture. Having thoroughly explored Los Angeles in Season One, the plan is to to explore San Francisco and Portland, Oregon in Season Two. While, perhaps, listening to Marshall interview people on the glories of Los Angeles has made me even more antagonistic towards our northern neighbor, I’m intrigued to see what kinds of conversations he can find in his trips to those other West Coast cities. Here’s the Kickstarter link – I hope that any readers of this blog will consider subscribing to Marshall’s podcast, or donating a few bucks, as I will, to one of the most stimulating conversations online today.

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