Episode 2: Novels & Political Consciousness

How does reading novels affect our understanding of the power dynamics that shape our lives?

The novel may be the best technology we have for transmitting human consciousness. But novels like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina don’t just give us a window into characters’ suffering minds. They also turn pain and oppression into beautiful literary prose. How does reading novels affect our understanding of the world we live in and the power dynamics that shape our lives?


In the second episode of Season 2 of Public Books 101, novelist Elif Batuman and scholar Merve Emre join our host, Nicholas Dames, to debate whether novels depoliticize us, or, like Sakaya Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, show readers what a life of freedom could look like.



Subscribe to Public Books 101 on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts to listen and to be notified when new episodes are released. Our RSS feed is available here.


View a transcript of the episode here.


Our guests

  • Elif Batuman is author of the novel The Idiot (2017), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and The Possessed (2010), a collection of comic interconnected essays about Russian literature. She has a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University and has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2010.
  • Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (2017) and The Personality Brokers (2018), and coauthor of The Ferrante Letters (2019). Merve’s essays and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the London Review of Books, and Public Books, among other publications.
  • 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+1, the NationNew Left Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review.


Mentioned in this episode

  • Books: Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote; Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure; Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; Sakaya Murata’s Earthlings; Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex; Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain
  • Authors: Herbert Marcuse, Sigmund Freud, René Girard, Marcel Proust
  • Articles, essays, quotes: “A Mini History of Convenience Stores in Japan” (2001); review of Batuman’s The Idiot in the New York Times (2017); Martin Amis on the dearth of sex in Pride and Prejudice; Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980)

Further reading

Elif recommends:



Merve recommends:


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