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Original Minds

by Eleanor Wachtel

Imagine a lively cocktail party filled with fascinating people, like former Goon Show star Jonathan Miller, chimp specialist Jane Goodall, neurologist Oliver Sacks, filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, scholar Harold Bloom, and urban planner Jane Jacobs. Imagine you’re surrounded by such people and all are ready to chat. Who better to facilitate such aggregate genius than CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel?

Original Minds, based on a series Wachtel produced for her radio program Writers & Company, presents 16 interviews that delve beyond the often very public lives of some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Citing the turn of the last century as her inspiration, Wachtel writes in her introduction,“I wanted to interview people who had shaped the last century and whose influence would continue into the next.”

We hear Miller on being psychoanalyzed as a child: “It was boring, because it got in the way of playing cricket.” We discover Sacks’ first response to learning the periodic table: “Ecstasy.” We get Bloom’s opinion of his childhood ability to read whole pages at a glance: “I was a kind of freak.” And we here Jacobs on aging: “I’m very envious of people who skateboard….”

Wachtel’s subjects all come from a liberal, academic tradition. They are humanist thinkers, and while all are certainly fascinating, it might have made for a more dynamic book if she had included people of different political stripes.

Unfortunately Wachtel does not seem interested in journalistic confrontation. While her copious research allows her to guide interviews with great skill, it also serves as a buffer that occasionally bogs her down. Some of her questioning comes off as merely seeking confirmation of what she already knows (or thinks she knows, as this tactic sometimes leads to gentle contradiction). Luckily her subjects are so engaging that readers can easily overlook any hints of hero worship on her part.

Wachtel is at her best – too infrequently when one senses she is improvising, when it appears her research has run out and raw curiosity takes over. That’s when she finds that perfect mix that makes any cocktail party a hit: plan, plan, plan – but above all, plan for spontaneity.