The great Bill Moyers outdid himself with A World Of Ideas: Writers. Originally broadcast on PBS in 1988, the sixteen half-hour episodes have just been issued in a four-DVD set by Acorn Media. Each program features one-on-one interviews between Moyers and renowned writers. What emerges over the course of the set is truly a world of ideas.
Everything from the value of knowledge, politics, the state of third-world nations and so much more is discussed. These are some fascinating minds at work here. Many of the things that were mere conjecture 23 years ago have now come true. And other thoughts now sadly seem profoundly naïve.
A great number of literary legends took part in the show. These include Joseph Heller, E.L. Doctorow, and August Wilson among others. There are three who were given two episodes to fully express themselves. They are Isaac Asimov, Toni Morrison, and Tom Wolfe.
Of all thirteen subjects Moyers speaks with, I found Asimov to be the most compelling. His views on what he calls the “con game” of mysticism are not particularly incendiary. But Moyers gently pushes him towards his views on organized religion, and the great science fiction writer does not disappoint.
“I find it insulting to human beings that a system only offering punishment and rewards is the only way you can life your life,” says Asimov, “I have a conscience, and it does not depend on religion.”
In the second part of the interview, the two are discussing the value of learning. Asimov is absolutely prescient in predicting the rise of the Internet. In 1988, the Internet did exist – but it was extremely difficult to get onto, and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented. Still Asimov speaks of a world where a person could get onto their computer, and if they had an interest in baseball (for example), they would be able to call up all the information in existence about the sport. Little did he know that that world was less than a decade away. Or did he?
Predictably, Tom Wolfe speaks about American culture, particularly the culture of New York City in the eighties that is described in his Bonfire Of The Vanities. He also makes his own predictions about the future. In 1988, Wolfe thought that the twenty-first century would be something of a “hangover” from the excesses of the twentieth century. Considering what happened in New York thirteen years later, it is a sobering thought.
Other interviews that I found quite enjoyable include E.L. Doctorow – who discusses the then current state of fiction writing. Also Joseph Heller, author of the classic Catch 22 - who compares the U.S. to ancient Greece. Strangely enough, it is the female African American writer Toni Morrison who saddened me the most. Her belief in the all conquering power of love probably sounded quaint even then, but today it is just painful to listen to.
The fourth DVD of the set is all bonus material, some 205 minutes to be exact. These interviews originally aired on NOW with Bill Moyers and Bill Moyers’ Journal, between the years 2002 – 2010. All eight of the subjects Moyers speaks to here are women, and include such luminaries as Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and Louise Erdrich (Shadow Tag).
Besides the fourth DVD, the other extras are text-based book lists for the authors included in the original series, and biographies for those included in the final segments. There is also a booklet included titled “A Viewers Guide” with more information about the series.
Altogether, the set runs over ten and a half hours. For fans of Bill Moyers, the various authors, or simply of very engaging intellectual give and take, I recommend A World Of Ideas: Writers. Bill Moyers and all of the people he speaks to share a wealth of thoughts that are as relevant to today as they were in 1988.