Two years ago I went on a solo camping trip with nothing to listen to except an oddball podcast I had just discovered. I was so transfixed by it that I don’t remember a thing about the camping trip because I spent the entire time listening to comedian (and, crucially in this case, improv genius) Michael Ian Black (you’d know him if you saw him) reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
Did I lose you? Well come on back, because the show is hilarious. Black opens the book (with no prior knowledge or research about it—or familiarity with it other than that it sat on his wife’s shelf—and no plans at all except to perhaps explore a half-thought-out idea about the nature of cultural “obscurity” which even he admits might apply to his own career) and begins reading (from his local branch library, and accompanied by his dog Jack-Jack) with absolutely no knowledge of its contents other than the title.
As he reads, he’ll stop at the end of a sentence and query, “Now what does that mean?” and then he’ll reframe aloud the sentence he just read in non-Hardy-speak (frequently in wildly incorrect fashion; he gets a lot charmingly wrong) and then zip right on to the next sentence. Sometimes you only hear one paragraph in a half hour because Black will get so far off the subject that even he can’t find his way back easily. When he wants to roam around the hills of Hardy’s Wessex, you just have to go along for the stroll with him.
Now look: I’m not seriously going to recommend that you rush over to your wireless and tune in to seventy-five 30-45 minute-long episodes of Jude the Obscure (that’s a lie—as a diehard Hardy fan, I’m totally saying you should do that), but here’s some news! Season 2 of “Obscure” began in late 2020 (fortuitously timed, as you’ll hear), and this time around tackles Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein!
Just short of twenty episodes in so far, and it’s just as delightful and fascinating and … r-o-u-n-d-a-b-o-u-t as Season 1 (it takes Black half of the first episode to decide whether or not to read the Introduction—he skips it, but you never really know if he might decide to go back and read it anyway in the future, and he DOES read the publishing information). Same setup: he has no idea what he’s reading before he lays eyes on it while you’re listening.
Frankenstein is a little more fun than Jude (in alllll the ways), so feel free to jump in with Season 2. You’ll know if it’s for you by the end of the first episode (there are naughty words), but I think “Obscure” does a great service to literature by appearing to do it no service at all other than playing around with it—I think we sometimes forget how fun literature can be.
It’s almost impossible to listen to “Obscure” and not quote Dr. Frankenstein himself and yell out “It’s alive!”