• On the Most Ambitious Literary Podcast in the History of the World

    How Does Doug Metzger Manage to Do It?

    Last April, a new anxiety found its way onto social media. Political polarization? No. Maybe a new Covid variant…? Nope. Of course, the war in Ukraine! Uh-uh, not that either. What, then? Well, people—some very special, specific, unique people—began wondering if Doug Metzger had finally given up.

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    You need to bear in mind the unfathomable depths of our present reading dilema to understand that angst and its cause: the possible end of what had been, up to that point, an extraordinary, dogged, lonely—perhaps hubristic?—quest.

    A century and a half ago, Emerson complained that there were too many books for an educated man to read (one million, according to his estimations.) In 2010, Google Books counted 130 million different titles in the world. How is a reader to deal with such an inconceivable library?

    Well, in 2015 Doug Metzger put himself to work to produce, single-handedly, a partial map of those numerous stacks: a free audio-history of Anglophone literature spanning authors, stories, civilizations and centuries, beginning at the very beginning… with the invention of writing in the Bronze Age. Nobody had hired him to do it, nobody had asked for it, and he had more pressing matters to take care of. But on he went, charging the windmills.

    Six years later, on October 31, 2021, Metzger released episode 96 of his ambitious work, a podcast simply called Literature and History. To that point he’d recorded more than 120 episodes, including bonus content, for a total of 232 hours and more than 1.75 million words—all written and recorded solo in his free time. Episode 96 was dedicated to the Dionysiaca, Nonnus’ bizarre 5th-century tale of the god Dionysus and his motley armada’s imperialistic eastward crusade to, well, force wine down everyone’s gullets. Episode 96 was two hours and fourteen minutes. It was just part 1.

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    Then, silence. And more silence. Month followed month without news. Not a tweet. Half a year of silence. Had he given up? Maybe it was inevitable. How long could he have gone on, after all? Not like he was making a living out of it. And why was he doing it in the first place?

    Born in Texas and raised in California by a geologist father and a pianist mother, Metzger fell into his vocation “like so many devotees of literature,” as he once told me: “I happened across the right books at the right times.” The right books were by Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne; when Metzger discovered Henry James and 19th-century realism in college, he got hooked for good, and went down the rabbit hole of a PhD at UC Davis. His 2011 dissertation, obscurely titled “Plots of Incline: American Local Color and Postbellum Philosophy,” probed the so-called “regionalism,” or “local color” in American Literature after the Civil War—a specialist’s work in a land of specialists.

    “I have students of all sorts and levels, parents and kids who listen together, folks with no college education who listen while doing manual labor and service jobs, a large number of people in legal fields, retirees of all stamps…”

    He left academia not long afterwards. He loved—loves—to teach, and he did it for eight years, at UC Davis, and later in Oregon. But when he moved back to Northern California with his wife, a physical chemistry professor, teaching positions were scarce. As “a happy, transplantable person,” he did not dwell on the disappointment and instead found himself a very Californian job in a software company.

    It might have ended there, another story of circumstance trumping vocation. But it was merely a prelude. Having renounced academia, he felt free to explore his own interests. Like previous generations of literary scholars, Metzger had grumbled about the books excluded from mandatory syllabi, books he could only read in his free time, no matter their weight and influence on the Anglophone authors he was studying. He had brooded about fads in literary theory, and their omnivorous, imperial ambitions. He realized he was attracted more to the history of literature than to the dutiful application of those theoretical models, even as he appreciated them and the people working on them.

    “It was very strange to finish a PhD on 19th-century American culture—to have read so much contemporary literary criticism, and so much postmodern period cultural theory, but not to have had any formal coursework on the Bible, or the Civil War, Second Great Awakening, or the Industrial Revolution, for instance,” he pointed out. “Training in late 20th-century philosophy (which I was offered) was a worthwhile intellectual exercise, but I’d have swapped out a couple of required critical theory seminars and replaced them with history and theology coursework if I’d been able to.”

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    Those past frustrations and that unfulfilled curiosity came together in the fall of 2015, when Metzger sat down to write a first draft, and then another, and then another. By the following year he was working nights, weekends and even lunch breaks to breathe life into Literature and History, a free, educational podcast that is also a veritable marathon.

    It would take eight months to get up to speed on Literature and History’s current offerings if you listened at a normal rate—let’s say, on your daily one-hour jog. That only covers Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Old Testament, Ancient Greece and Rome, the New Testament and the rise of Christianity up to Late Antiquity; there’s still a long way ahead to reach anything resembling English, not to mention the modern era. At the end of those eight months, you’d be fit to run an actual marathon.

    Metzger’s podcast is the sort of ready-made classical education most self-regarding humanities grads wish to have already acquired—or fantasize about acquiring on the go—as it offers clear, engaging, scholarly-reviewed expositions on its myriad subjects and doesn’t require you to open a single book.

    Almost every episode follows the same, simple structure: Metzger introduces an author, their era, their work and its protagonists. A detailed, engaging recounting of the text itself ensues, and whether it’s the Book of Genesis, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, The Aeneid, Horace’s Odes, or Ovid’s poems, Metzger never assumes previous knowledge in his listeners—everything is told anew and explained as if for virgin years.

    In Metzger’s account, listeners find themselves right there with the Jewish scribes working on Scripture, first in Judah, then in the Babylonian exile, sharing in their aims and concerns.

    Finally, he provides analysis of author and text grounded in historical context. So the Bible’s tale of The Tower of Babel is not (just) a theological warning of God’s wrath, or a cautionary tale of humanity’s hubris, but also a revealing metaphor of a momentous twist in the history of writing; the Oedipus cycle is spared Freudian interpretations in favor of an explication of the circumstances surrounding the plays in 5th-century BCE Athens. One learns that the new comedy of Menander and its “private” topics reflect the squalor left behind by Alexander the Great, and that Apolonius’s Jason and the Argonauts speaks of Alexandria and its legendary library; the tragedies of Seneca are examined not just in comparison to their Greek antecedents but in relation to the playwright’s role in the machinations of the Caesars.

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    The other main thread in those first hundred episodes is religion, with a focus on the Bible—“the most influential book in history,” as Metzger never tires of reminding his listeners. By looking at the Bible as literature, however, and recognizing the topics, themes, tropes, characters, stories, teleologies, and peoples it shares with other traditions, myths and religions from the Bronze and Iron ages, the Book of Books comes out neither as a providential beginning nor a forceful, predestined conclusion, but as a wondrous, intricately woven chapter in the rich saga of the Eastern Mediterranean cultures. Through in Metzger’s account, listeners find themselves right there with the Jewish scribes working on Scripture, first in Judah, then in the Babylonian exile, sharing in their aims and concerns, witness to young Yawhe muscling his way into the godly pantheon.

    To be sure, Christianity gets the same treatment as Judaism. Starting with the Egyptian notion of the weighing of souls that grants or denies access to the afterlife in the Book of the Dead, Literature and History traces the rise of Christianity as an organic development of its time and place. Metzger’s remarkable multi-episode exposition—on the extended cults of Isis, Dionysus, and Cybeles, on the recurrent myths of a god who dies to be resurrected and save humanity, on Pythagorism and Orphysm, on secret rites all along the Eastern Mediterranean, and on the sectarian divisions among the Jews— exposes the hidden roots of the religion that transformed what one day would be called the West.

    Surely there must be a lecture, seminar or study group taking place right now in some history or divinity school that holds these truths to be self-evident? The extraordinary thing about Literature and History is that those of us who aren’t partaking in those university lectures, seminars or study groups, start feeling the same way after a few months of listening to a podcast.

    Episodes that last less than one hour begin to stretch to more than two, and you find yourself not only understanding the obvious logic and meaning behind the absurd plot of Nonnus’s Dyonisiaca, but wondering why there has not been any modern translation of the crucial Book of Jubilees, worrying about the lack of contemporary attention to Zoroastrianism and Manicheism, raging because 90 percent of extant Mesopotamian clay tablets remain untranslated (what’s wrong with people?) lamenting what we’ve lost, and treasuring the little that has been actually rescued.

    By his reckoning, each episode takes Metzger an average of 150 hours to produce, because he does it all: researching and reading, writing, recording, post-production, and even the soundtrack.

    “To this day, I think that if you listen forward from Episode 1, even with no particular background in the Humanities, you can follow through to where we are in Late Antiquity, and perhaps thousands of emails that I’ve received from folks in health sciences, engineering, software, and other fields corroborate just this,” Metzger told me. “The audience is, in a word, diverse. In addition to those in the above professions, of course I have students of all sorts and levels, parents and kids who listen together, folks with no college education who listen while doing manual labor and service jobs, a large number of people in legal fields, retirees of all stamps, men and women from a number of different clergies, quite a gratifying quantity of professors, and people with really, really touching stories. There are some wonderful Iranian listeners who are locked out of the IBS due to sanctions whom I’m happy to just give bonus content away to for free. I’ve talked to bright young kids from madrasas and yeshivas who have just wanted to learn a bit more about ancient pagan and Christian history, and who have found the show a good route to do so without ruffling any clerical feathers.”

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    Metzger is the rare highly educated narrator who never sounds pedantic or condescending, and can make the lesser known or obscure as fascinating as the beloved classics. He comes across like that enthusiastic friend who can’t wait to share some amazing thing he just learned, who doesn’t hesitate to joke about sacred texts usually taught with stiff, institutional reverence. Listening to his smooth, one-way conversation, you’d never guess he’s reading from one of scores of scripts you can find on his website, footnotes, bibliography and illustrations included.

    By his reckoning, each episode takes Metzger an average of 150 hours to produce, because he does it all: researching and reading, writing, recording, post-production, and even the soundtrack, which he composes and records himself, playing piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and other instruments. He reads, writes and composes in time stolen from his job, his sleep, or his social life. His coworkers, he told me, are unaware that the guy taking a break right next to them is not spacing out, but ruminating about Latin poetry or toying with a new musical piece.

    Inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s You Gotta Get a Gimmick, Meztger adds a “comedy song” at the end of most episodes. Not much more than a couple of stanzas in the first episodes, these silly musical tangents swell into full-fledged songs by the second season, with a rap battle between Cicero and Catiline probably one of the high points. Metzger regularly uploads the songs to YouTube, in some cases turning them into musical cartoons.

    He records both music and words in a makeshift sound booth he built in his home office, a space cluttered with stacks of books on top of instrument cases. He’s very proud of his equipment, which he deems up to professional standards. “I started recording in my twenties with albums of music that I wrote, and I always try to bring a lot of care and precision to a final product before publishing it. I feel like if I’m going to record something about a woefully underserved subject like Gnosticism or Menander, it needs to be clear, organized and done with professionalism.”

    Once the recording is completed, he listens to it through studio monitor speakers, checking the script and making adjustments. Afterwards, he tests it on conditions similar to the ones in which he imagines his listeners might find themselves. So he goes for a jog under the California sun, earbuds in, listening to his own voice talking about, say, the tribulations of Saint Anthony, or the Seven Against Thebes. The test usually ends with him sitting next to a river near his house, still listening. “That way I can see how it sounds with a bit of wind rumbling along, and how easy the narrative is to follow with the ambient distractions of navigating streets and trails and all that,” he explained. Even with all the checks and edits, he still routinely goes back to episodes he released months or years ago to keep editing them—including the very first ones.

    Metzger comes across like that enthusiastic friend who can’t wait to share some amazing thing he just learned, who doesn’t hesitate to joke about sacred texts usually taught with stiff, institutional reverence.

    How long could he have sustained this level of work? The podcast was not paying the bills; most of the episodes are free, except for the “bonus content,” special sets of five episodes he sells for $9.99. He has asked his audience to support the podcast with donations of one dollar per episode via Patreon. But is 30,000 unique listeners per episode enough to make a living? “Closer,” he said to me last January.

    By then he had taken a break of two months, and felt guilty. He needed the time for himself, he told me, but was confident he would be releasing episode 97—Dionysiaca, part 2—in February. He didn’t. Time passed. His dedicated audience began getting nervous. It’s that audience, after all—the one that now couldn’t live without detailed Christian hagiography, explications of ancient cults, and deep dives into Greek romance.

    By April, the absence was frankly alarming, so I reached out to him again. He replied to my texts from an ICU. He had been there for the previous thirty hours, he said, in the midst of a family emergency. Everything in the last six months seemed to have conspired against his work—even the war in Ukraine, his wife’s home country—and he had reached a point of exhaustion.

    “I felt like I was writing increasingly convoluted and unappealing shows because my brain was wrapped in a wickerwork of Late Antique Theology. I needed to get the noncanonical seeds of medieval Catholicism right, though, and keep going. So I soldiered on past the fatigue, writing new episodes. That was what knocked me down—writing a bundle of new episodes in just two months while running on fumes,” he told me.

    Was this it, then…? The end?

    No! No matter the difficulties, Literature and History is “central to my life,” he told me, and thanked me for the “nudge.” So on May 8th, still spending hours each day in the ICU, Metzger released episode 97: two hours and thirty three minutes on the endless Dionysiaca, which in some grating, exasperated hours he had described in his notebook as “a bunch of normal and harmless easterners having a bad acid trip during which they’re attacked by extremely violent Wiccans and berserk hippies playing fucking pan flutes,” but went on to valorize as an expression of the energy and vitality springing from the “fruitfuil commingly of Christianity and paganism.”

    The audience sighed and cheered. “Everything’s right with the world again,” a relieved member of the audience wrote on Facebook. “I was beginning to think I could make some major headway” thanks to the pause, wrote another. “At least I am past the Greeks.”

    Not just refusing to quit, Metzger has plans to expand the podcast’s scope even more. If everything goes according to plan, next year he should be finally approaching the Anglo-Saxon era (future episode 115,) the place where conventional histories of Anglophone literature start. “I know the flagship texts that everyone will want—Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, etc., and of course, we’ll do those,” he said. “But I also want to continue the program’s more panoramic look at how Anglophone literary history evolved, and this will involve a lot more switching of time zones than our Norton Anthologies traditionally feature. It would be wonderful to some day bring the show up to contemporary literary history, thus connecting literature’s emerging voices with its very ancient past, but we have quite a long way to go!”

    So will it ever end? Even the runner of the original, Greek marathon eventually reached his destination—according to legend, right before dropping dead. Not Metzger. “I don’t have any plans to stop producing the show,” he promised me. “I will always do it.”

    Gabriel Pasquini
    Gabriel Pasquini
    Gabriel Pasquini is an Argentinian journalist and novelist living in New York City. He has published two books on criminal cases and two critically-acclaimed novels.

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