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jjohn (22)

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Journal of jjohn (22)

Thursday January 08, 2004
09:58 AM

Sarah Vowell interview with THE Robert Birnbaum

[ #16709 ]

Sarah Vowell is nerd goddess. Informed, self-effacing and somewhat neutrotic, there is little not to love about Vowell's writing for radio's This American Life. A self-confessed civics geek, her brand of tempered patriotism is fits like knitted slippers. In this interview, it is just possible to glimpse Vowell apart the eclipsing majesty of interviewer, Robert Brinbaum. Of course most readers will know of this Important Journalist but for those benighted dullards who don't, here is the small biography Birnbaum appends to his interview with Vowell:

«Robert Birnbaum came to journalism, where he has been a practitioner for the past two decades, from a series of possibly (it's too soon to tell) educational vocational experiences that are too numerous to mention. In the '80s and '90s, as publisher/creative director of STUFF magazine in Boston, when he wasn't attending industrial gatherings, he interviewed nearly 500 hundred writers — from Martin Amis and Isabel Allende to Marianne Wiggins and Howard Zinn — and read almost 1000 books. He is currently, among other things, pondering if there is a place for him in a profession increasingly infested with vulgarians who believe 'editorial content' is celebrating restaurant and shop openings, endlessly lionizing the same small group of celebrities and reiterating the press releases of the publicists they have just had lunch with. He lives with his Labrador retriever Rosie and helps parent his young son Cuba Maxwell.»

What's delightful about Birnbaum's interviews is that even if the reader doesn't care for the interviewee, his questions are mini-essays filled with The Journalist's inimitable style and opinions. The reader may safely gloss over the interviewee's responses and focus on the author's great talent. While most writers are advised to "kill their darlings" to better craft their prose, he bravely ignores this mean stricture so that his readers may delight in uncut Birnbaum wit.

Robert Birnbaum: like Churchhill, you are a Great Man.

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  • I haven't seen any of Robert Birmbaum's other stuff, but I was not impressed with this interview. Indeed, based on your recommendation, which I respect, I checked out his interview with Adam Gopnik, another writer I know about. I have the same feelings after reading that interview.

    * She is introduced as living in NYC, but the first question is about Boston. I don't know why she is in Boston.

    * His second question challenges that the "Freedom Trail" even exists. It is there, as she says, and it is a real painted red line. I have been there. I have followed it. His question seems more combative than anything else, and it sounds like he's gearing up to grind some axe. Right away I'm wondering why he even needs Sarah Vowell around for this.

    * He won't let go of the point, and I get the feeling that Sarah Vowell can't really beleive he's being obstinate about it. He calls the Freedom Trail a "marketing tool". I don't know what his beef is, but I don't think he is using "marketing" correctly, and somehow thinks the Freedom Trail is commercial in nature. He sounds like an idiot who does not get out much.

    * He then makes a stupid claim about people reading every book in print, and mentions Jefferson. I really doubt Jefferson knew enough languages to read *every* book in print. Does he think Europe and America are the only things that exist?

    * He makes a tired argument about the level of education in America. That's hardly news---Jay Leno has a bit where he asks people on the street things about history to show that. Why waste time on this? Sarah says several times "I'm not an expert" which is the secret interviewee code for "I can't give a good answer for this". Still, he persists.

    * He calls the United States a political geographical abstration. Again, I get the feeling he has different meanings for words than the rest of us do. Nations are pretty concrete, populated with real people with real social security cards, and so on. Breaking the law and getting beat up by a cop is not an abstraction. Furthermore, his notion of patriotism is rather limited. Surely more people than football fans with body paint can express loyalty to their nation. Sarah responds at length and he changes the subject to the tired half-full glass philosophy 101 argument. Does this guy work for a college paper or is he a working journalist?

    Half way through I stopped reading because he was not really pulling anything out of her that I do not already know. It sounds like a fluff peice. Had he listened to the Trail of Tears episode of This American Life, he could have skipped the stupid questions about her sister, or asked more profound ones. He could have skipped the

    I skimmed the rest of the questions, which seemed either pre-interview type throwaways or him just saying what he thingks.

    But then, I like Glenn Gould's interviewing style much better. He goes after the things nobody knows about the person. He interviewed himself, and, as the interviewer, asked himself if there were any topics off-limits. He replied, as the interviewee, that aside from music, anything goes, and suggested native rights in Alaska. I found two more of his interviews on CD while I was on leave, and just remembered that I have not listened to them yet.
    • brian, I think you need to check out your irony meter. It appears to be broken. ;-)

      Birnbaum is a twat and an awful interviewer. That poorly written and self-aggrandizing bio that I quoted testifies to paucity of his talent. And he's a twat. Did I mention that already?

      • Oh, good. I was about to send an apology email to you. :)

        I saw "Sarah Vowell" and got excited. Sorry for explaining the obvious to everyone. It's good to know I can still be a dumbass, even half way around the world.

        By the way, I was looking at the "read 1000 books" thing and thinking "I read half as many of that in high school, and a tenth of that while in Iraq".