Charles Johnson, Combing the Historical Record Charles Johnson is a renowned novelist, essayist and writer of short stories. His novel Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award. Lately, his own reading has been directed at an upcoming historical work.

Charles Johnson, Combing the Historical Record

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Our Summer Reader this week is Dr. Charles Johnson. He's a renowned novelist, essayist and writer of short stories. His novel Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award. He's also a cartoonist and a Buddhist, and he joins us from his home office in Seattle, Washington.

Hi, Dr. Johnson. Welcome to the program.

Dr. CHARLES JOHNSON (Author): Hello, Liane.

HANSEN: So what have you been reading lately?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, I have been reading things that help me with my own writing this summer. I find myself writing increasingly about the question of the health of our culture and society and civilization. So there are some books that have been more helpful to me than others. Usually works of history. So I found a very useful, going back to H.G. Wells's The Outline of History, two-volume masterpiece, and Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. And a third book that I would include is Morris Berman's The Twilight of American Culture.

HANSEN: Hmm. How are you using this work in your writing now? I mean, are you looking to sort of try to make sense of this particular moment in history or fitting this moment?

Dr. JOHNSON: Absolutely.


Dr. JOHNSON: Absolutely. One of my great obsessions these days is where are we at as a culture. I'm looking at lots of things in the sciences and education just to try to take the temperature on where we might be, say, 10, 15 years from now.

HANSEN: Hmm. You don't get off a quick mystery or something, you know, just to - like sorbet between courses?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOHNSON: You mean a mystery novel?

HANSEN: Yeah. Or something just, you know, for fun?

Dr. JOHNSON: Oh, well, this is fun.


Dr. JOHNSON: Oh, this is fun because the study of history for every novelist is a delight. And believe me, it's full of mysteries.

HANSEN: I bet it is. I bet it is. So if you had all the time in the world and could settle in with just one book, what would it be?

Dr. JOHNSON: You know, as a Buddhist, I would want the biggest collection of Sutras that I could - in translation, that I could get my hands on. But I really would like to work through each and every one of the Sutras and (unintelligible) Sanskrit. Now that's a tough - that would keep me occupied for quite a while.

HANSEN: Dr. Charles Johnson's article, Dharma for a Dangerous Time, is in the September issue of The Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun.

HANSEN: Dr. Johnson, thanks a lot.

Dr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

HANSEN: This summer, we've spoken to a variety of people about what they've been reading lately. We'd like to know what you've been reading this summer. What's the one book that will stay with you? We also want to know why you liked it, but please be brief. Go to our Web site,, and then click on the Contact Us link. Follow the instructions, and in the subject line of your message please write, What I'm reading. And please be sure to include your phone number. We plan to get in touch with some of you to record your comments, which will be broadcast on our show Labor Day weekend.

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