Episode 1: Novels & Ideas

How do novels provoke readers to wrestle with complex, even dangerous ideas?

In the 19th century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provoked readers to consider the dangerous potential of technological invention and the limits of human subjectivity. Early in the 21st century, South African author J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello presented controversial claims about human brutality in a form that can be spare, challenging, and, at times, debatably fictional.


In the first episode of Season 2 of Public Books 101, novelist Teju Cole and scholar Tara K. Menon join our host, Nicholas Dames, to consider how novels inspire readers to wrestle with difficult ideas. How do novels help us think more ethically about the world we inhabit? How do activities such as listening to jazz, watching films, and binging dramas like Fleabag compare to reading novels? And what does Teju Cole mean when he says that he “reads Coetzee like a cat”?



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View a transcript of the episode here.


Our guests

  • Teju Cole is a novelist, photographer, critic, curator, and author of five books, including Open City (2011), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, among other prizes, and Every Day Is for the Thief (2007), first published by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria and since translated into seven languages. He was the photography critic of the New York Times Magazine from 2015 until 2019 and is currently the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard University.
  • Tara K. Menon is an assistant professor in the department of English at Harvard University. Her research and teaching interests include the 19th-century novel, narrative theory, Victorian literature, and Romanticism. She is currently working on her book manuscript, “Spoken Words: Direct Speech in Nineteenth-Century British Novels,” which combines large-scale data analysis and formal close readings to reveal how direct speech shapes our understanding of, and affective responses to, literary characters. She is an editor of the Literary Fiction section at Public Books and has written essays for Public Books on film and TV.
  • Nicholas Dames, this season’s host, is an editor in chief of Public Books and the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (2007). He has written on contemporary fiction, novel reading, and the humanities for The Atlanticn+1The NationNew Left Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review.


Mentioned in this episode

  • Books: Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote; J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals and Disgrace; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; William Godwin’s Caleb Williams; Mary Wollstonecraft’s Mary: A Fiction; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; George Eliot’s Middlemarch; Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace; James Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Authors: François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Agatha Christie, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, V. S. Naipaul, Allan Bloom, Jonathan Lear, Wendy Doniger, Cora Diamond, Peter Singer
  • Articles, essays, podcast episodes: Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov,” (1936); T. S. Eliot on Henry James: “He had a mind so fine an idea couldn’t violate it” (1918); James Wood’s review of Elizabeth Costello (2003); Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, interviewed by Pamela Paul, on the Book Review podcast (2020); Cora Diamond’s academic article “Eating Meat and Eating People” (1978)
  • Film and TV series: Takashi Miike’s film Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011); Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s series Fleabag (2016–19); the CBS series The Good Wife (2009–16)


Further reading

Teju recommends:



Tara recommends:


This episode was produced by Annie Galvin and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution License (CC-BY 4.0). icon