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Podthoughts: Letter from America

Vital stats:
Format: letters on one Englishman’s America, from 1946 to 2004
Episode duration: 15m
Frequency: N/A

If you want to learn about a place, talk to its outsiders. That rule has guided my study of Los Angeles ever since I moved here; rightheaded or wrongheaded, observers with few roots in the city write the most interesting books about it, and reading them counteracts the risk of dulled senses that increases the longer I live here. On a larger scale, we Americans could do well to learn about our country through minds not quite of it. That, I would guess, explains the 170-year popularity of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I haven’t read all of that book, but then, the astute reader can presumably pick and choose their chapters. The same goes for Letter from America, Alistair Cooke’s 2,869-episode radio series that ran from 1946 to 2004. Even if you don’t listen to the whole run, you’ll still learn a thing or two about the United States, and you may not have learned them any other way.

Not that you can, easily, listen to the whole run, though you can, thanks to the BBC’s podcasting wing, easily listen to select broadcasts from each of the program’s eras: the early years [iTunes], from Nixon to Carter [iTunes], the Reagan years [iTunes], the Bush Sr. years [iTunes], the Clinton years 1993-1996 [iTunes], the Clinton years 1997-2000 [iTunes], and the Bush Jr. years [iTunes]. Don’t let the presidential organization throw you; the show hardly limits itself to political topics, though the British-born Cooke does seem to have had a lifelong fascination with American political figures and how the people regard them. No matter where you start listening — or, rather, when you start listening — you quickly get a sense of what fascinated Cooke, since, in all of Letter from America’s eight hundred-odd hours of airtime, he spoke, and he alone. Having emigrated to America in 1937, he wrote the letters from it, and by reading them over the BBC’s Home Service, succeeded by Radio 4, he sent them to an eager non-American listening public with almost as much curiosity about this relatively new, relatively experimental country as he had.

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