Michael Krasny (Photo/greymatter.show)
Michael Krasny (Photo/greymatter.show)

KQED icon Michael Krasny, supposedly retired, launches a book club and podcast

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

After retiring two years ago as a literature professor and the host of KQED radio’s “Forum” talk show, Michael Krasny wasn’t sure how to pass the time. He finally found the answer: more teaching, more broadcasting.

“When I retired, I thought, ‘What am I gonna do with my life?’” he told J. “Turns out the same things I’ve always done. Writing, teaching, broadcasting. All those typical retirement things, like golf or learning a language or playing gardener, don’t interest me.”

Fifty years of teaching American literature at San Francisco State University gave Krasny, 78, a leg up as he takes on his next project. In partnership with Book Passage, he is starting an online course on five classic American novels.

The Michael Krasny Book Club will take deep dives into “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “Seize the Day” by Saul Bellow, “Sula” by Toni Morrison and “There There” by Oakland native Tommy Orange.

“The difficulty was how to select five,” Krasny said. “I thought I’d start with ‘The Great Gatsby’ because people love it and love to talk about it, and it resonates for people who’ve read it a few times.”

He also loves “Invisible Man,” a 1953 National Book Award winner for fiction (and the only novel Ellison published during his lifetime), and Bellow’s 128-page “Seize the Day,” which he called “a real New York novel in many ways.”

Krasny has long admired Morrison, whose work he taught at SFSU. He interviewed her on “Forum” in 2008, and after her death in 2019, he dedicated a show to her.

“There There,” the 2018 debut novel by the acclaimed Cheyenne writer Tommy Orange, is narrated by 12 Native Americans as they prepare for the Big Oakland Powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. It was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Despotism is on the rise, and of course it can happen here … We have moved into realms of evil we never thought possible.

Three authors of color, one Jewish writer (Bellow) and Fitzgerald attest to the multiverse that is American literature. But even after a half-century of pondering the subject, Krasny still asks himself what makes an American novel “American.”

“In a country as diverse as this, is there something that unifies the American experience, or is it just this huge polyglot?” he asked. “It’s a huge country with many countries within it. But it’s a question I’ve always approached. Each book [in his book club]  is a classic, and reflective of the American experience.”

One of Krasny’s sub-specialties is the Jewish American novel. For decades, he taught works by Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Bellow, his hero. He said those writers and the generation of artists before them — from Irving Berlin to George Gershwin to the Marx Brothers — helped America find its cultural voice.

“We’ve always been called the people of the book,” he said of the Jews. “All that love of the book and language, the oral tradition and folklore, is deep in our heritage. There is a basis for making the argument that Jews had a preeminent role in literary criticism. And they did. Who has had more influence in the canon than Harold Bloom or Alfred Kazin. And the literary journals were edited and staffed by Jews. It really ought to be a source of pride.”

Krasny grew up in Cleveland in a Conservative kosher home, and at one point considered becoming a cantor. He earned a master’s degree from Ohio University and a doctorate in English literature from the University of Wisconsin before heading west to launch his career as a professor and, later, a talk show host.

He doesn’t just talk the talk about literature. Krasny has written two autobiographies, “Off Mike,” a 2007 memoir of his radio career, and “Spiritual Envy,” a 2010 book about his lifelong wrestling match with the existence of God. “Let There Be Laughter,” from 2016, explored Jewish humor.

These and countless other subjects were topics the “ever erudite” (in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle) Krasny covered on “Forum,” a two-hour interview and call-in show that the Chronicle called “an insult to nobody’s intelligence.”

(Asked if he ever tunes in to listen to his old show, he replied that he does and praised co-hosts Alexis Madrigal and Mina Kim for “doing a good job.”)

After leaving “Forum,” Krasny started a new weekly podcast, “Grey Matter,” which covers a broad spectrum of subjects, from health to national politics to global finance. On a September episode, he interviewed directors Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein about their PBS docuseries “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”

Keeping abreast of issues that matter to the Jewish community remains all-important to him, he said. He is especially worried about a spike in antisemitism that, he observes, goes hand in hand with authoritarian political gains.

“Despotism is on the rise, and of course it can happen here,” he said. “That’s why Phillip Roth wrote his novel, ‘The Plot Against America.’ We have moved into realms of evil we never thought possible. Social media and the internet have made it very easy for all kinds to crawl out from under the rocks and organize.”

Krasny doesn’t believe America has crossed the Rubicon when it comes to authoritarianism, at least not yet. But he does believe that even if the nation were to draw closer to an anti-democratic illiberal society, art and literature will continue to flourish.

“There’s a paradox,” he said. “Sometimes great art comes out of adversity. That tells me it can’t be kept down.”

“Michael Krasny Book Club”

Online 6 to 7:30 p.m. third Tuesday of the month, February to June. $200. Limited to 25 participants.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.