Brian Wilson isn’t your average book nerd.
He has an engineering degree, owns a pair of CrossFit gyms and can share war stories from numerous deployments over more than a decade as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps and Reserves.
But Wilson, 39, would rather talk about classical literature any day.
“You read something in the 1300s about a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and you’re like, ‘What does this have to do with me?’” he said, spotting Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous work sitting on his packed bookshelf during a recent interview. “Then you start digging into these characters and digging into their dialogue. Then you think, ‘Oh my God. People haven’t changed at all.’”
Wilson, whose favorite works include everything from Shakespeare to Sophocles, knows he’s not the only veteran fascinated by ancient texts, and that’s one reason he’s bringing his expertise to the masses in a new literary podcast called “Combat and Classics.” The podcast, co-hosted by Wilson and two college professors, targets a military audience and has garnered more than 11,000 downloads since its August launch.
“We know that service members are serious people, and they’ve had experiences that lead them to ask fundamental questions,” said Jeff Black, a podcast co-host who tutors at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
Each episode focuses on a particular book or passage from classical literature. Sometimes, like with Homer’s “Iliad,” military themes are easier to come by. But the central point of the podcast is to foster discussion and deeper thinking of big philosophical questions.
“One of the questions that comes up in today’s reading is, ‘What’s the value of life? Is life as a whole a good thing, or is it better not to have been born?’” Black said as he was preparing to record the latest episode on Anton Chekhov’s short story “Rothschild’s Violin.” “This is the sort of question, we think, that even though it doesn’t have a direct application to the military audience, we think our military audience will be interested in.”
The podcast got its start in the form of live seminars back in 2013. Wilson, a Naval Academy graduate, had made his way back to Annapolis to get a graduate degree at St. John’s College, a small liberal arts institution with campuses in the capital cities of Maryland and New Mexico, where all undergraduates learn Greek and study philosophy, and professors are called “tutors” because their job is to facilitate discussion — not lecture.
Black, then associate dean of the graduate program, said he was looking for a way to interest military and veteran students in pursuing degrees St. John’s.
“I had noticed that military students and ex-military students made very good students at St. John’s,” he said. “They’re very concerned about the fundamental questions that we pose in our classes.”
So he and Wilson took their idea of a book-club-style workshop for service members to Quantico, where they facilitated lunchtime discussions and later started hosting online seminars for remote service members. In typical St. John’s fashion, the seminars were run as discussions, with reason as the only authority.
“What we finally decided was, a lot of people have time when they’re driving on to base or going home after the end of their day, and they like to listen to podcasts, so the Combat and Classics podcast was born from there,” Black said.
The podcast, recorded in Black’s basement office, is a small operation, despite its growing reach as part of an affiliation with the Partially Examined Life philosophy series. In addition to Black and Wilson, the team includes two others: St. John’s tutor and co-host Lise van Boxel and producer Sanya Sarich Kerksiek, a St. John’s graduate and military spouse.
The hosts connect over video chat before each episode — Wilson and Van Boxel dial in from Dallas and Santa Fe, respectively — and use a free audio software to record their discussions before sending them to Sarich Kerksiek to edit, post online and publicize.
Their audience spans the gamut — from generals to E-2s, Wilson said.
The podcasters know they’re appealing to a niche market of service members and veterans who read Plato in their spare time. But, they argue, the podcast’s themes are applicable to anyone.
“It’s not necessary to be familiar with classic literature,” Black said. “In fact, the whole goal is to provide a kind of introduction that encourages people to want to read the books on their own, and also encourage them to find other like-minded people who might want to talk about these sorts of things with them.”
Black, Wilson and Van Boxel summarize each work before launching into a deeper discussion of its themes, making it possible for listeners to be engaged without having read the text.
“Maybe I’m idealistic,” said Sarich Kerksiek, who previously worked for the Army as a civilian Serbo-Croatian interpreter. “I think (the podcast) is for everyone, depending on what phase of life you’re at. I think that these questions do occur to almost everybody. It’s just a question of how far you want to pursue them.”
She, like the others, believes service members and veterans bring unique perspectives to these types of discussions.
“Particularly when you’re deployed in different countries, you’re involved in the politics, the human element like diplomacy — not just on a political scale but on a personal scale, you know?” she said. “All of those themes come up in these books.”
Wilson vividly remembers being at war and asking himself questions like, “What is the nature of man?” and how that nature might be different in conflict versus cooperation.
“(I) just had a lot of confusion about who are we fighting, why are they fighting us, and why are some people risking their lives to help us and why are some people trying to kill us,” he said.
The freedom he found to explore those questions at St. John’s was different than how he’d been taught in the military, and he wants others with similar backgrounds to share in that experience.
“We just think that through the lens of those great books...you can get a much deeper understanding of who you’re helping, who you’re fighting,” he said. And ultimately, he added, “who you are.”