Podcast Review: Obscure with Michael Ian Black
By his own admission, it is an ill-advised venture, to create a podcast that is largely just reading Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1894-95) aloud and commenting upon it as he goes.
The conceit is not so strange, really, since many book lovers can and do access audiobooks to "read" countless other classic novels. But only faithful listeners to Obscure with Michael Ian Black can listen to a classic read aloud and hear it accompanied with uniquely thoughtful and entertaining commentary.
With a PhD in English literature and 3 Hardy novels under my belt, I can sometimes get frustrated at host Michael Ian Black's lesser familiarity with the social history and literary landscape the novel treads. But these moments are few, and Black is unafraid to pause his reading to look up an unfamiliar term or perform other necessary research for making sense of the sometimes obscure(!) references inevitable in a book over 100 years old. More importantly, Black is generally astute in his observations about the continued relevance of a novel such as Jude the Obscure for its social commentary and deep understanding of human character. In particular, Black has noticed how the novel's overt criticism of marriage as an institution and the related power imbalances between the genders speaks to problems we continue to face in the #MeToo era.
Black delivers his reading with an actor's commitment to emotional truths and a desire to connect with the characters he reads. His commentary offers a delightful counterpoint to the seriousness of the performances. Pausing between lines or amending them with his own embellishments, Black's insights tap into a self-deprecating egotism and a tendency to undercut the gravitas of the story with comedic translations into modern vernacular and typology. For instance, he voices a minor character as a college bro, and others as Boston-accented townies a-la Good Will Hunting. This ability to find parallels in the modern world may be one of Black's greatest strengths as a reader, to understand, as Walter Scott put it in his introduction to Waverley (1814) "those passions common to all men in all stages of society."
Obscure is a remarkable podcast. It's a genuine pleasure to find an ostensibly obscure novel like Jude receiving popular attention today, reaching listeners in a new context through a new medium; it's especially gratifying to hear how accessible this novel can be, and that the things that fascinate and excite me about 19th century fiction excite and fascinate an audience broader than merely people with advanced degrees in English lit. I hope that Michael will continue this podcast once he finishes with Jude, perhaps exploring other forgotten and underappreciated treasures.