There ought to be a word in English that describes the nearly uncontrollable urge to leap out of a reading chair, race to find a friend, and press the book you are reading urgently into their hands. When they politely agree to take a look, you say no, no, you have to read this right now. Let me hold your coffee.
This is the feeling I get reading “Listening: Interviews, 1970-1989.” Jonathan Cott, contributing editor at Rolling Stone, author of 20 books and writer for the New York Times, the New Yorker and other publications, has collected a series of interviews that span his career. From the point of my reading chair, however, he has collected some of the most important voices of my generation. These are people who have changed my life, and to some degree I believe I know them. These interviews make that vague sense intimate.
As Cott points out in his introduction, an interview is essentially a Socratic dialogue, an exchange of prompt and wondering, a winding exploration of personal history and desire. The very best interviews are an opening of someone’s head and heart. “Listening” contains some of the very best interviews.
Each interview begins with context. Cott presents a thematic preface, not so much to say who the subject has been but who the subject is now. Cott will also sometimes break into the Q&A format to offer exposition or some idea-background. Many of the interviews end with tombstone-like dates of birth and death.
On my first evening with the book, I read interviews with Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan and Elizabeth Taylor. Every one of them surprised me. I did not know that Geisel’s father ran a zoo in Springfield, Mass. He says, “My style of drawing animals … derives from the fact that I don’t know how to draw. I began drawing pictures as a child … trying, let’s say, to get as close to a lion as possible. People would laugh, so I decided to go for the laugh.”
I was as fascinated by the adult Geisel as I was by his characters when I was young. Cott says, “I think a lot of your books are subversive, don’t you?” and Geisel replies, “I’m subversive as hell! I’ve always had a mistrust of adults.”
I did not expect Geisel to quote psychologist D.W. Winnicott, nor did I expect — though I should have — the discussion of “The Cat in the Hat” as an anarchist text. Likewise, reading the interview with Mick Jagger, I was surprised to hear him talk about Chaucer’s use of dreams. His talk about the Stones’ descriptions of women is captivating.
Cott interviewed John Lennon three days before Lennon was shot. The interview is wide-ranging, covering music and family life, philosophies and new projects, and it’s impossible to read the interview without an overwhelming feeling of sadness — not for the loss of an icon but for the loss of a person suddenly more real than before.
The next night, I read interviews with George Balanchine, Bob Dylan, Stéphane Grappelli, Lou Reed and Studs Terkel. The night after that, all the rest. And I found myself thinking how odd that the interview, which is primarily a spoken event, finds such eloquence in print. Cott brings grace to the work. “All I really need to do is simply ask a question,” he says, “And then listen.”
Listening to these men and women talk, my own life became larger. I have never been a happier reader.
W. Scott Olsen teaches English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.
Listening: Interviews 1970-1989
By: Jonathan Cott.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 368 pages, $29.95.