What Do We Have To Teach Plato? | St. Louis Public Radio

What Do We Have To Teach Plato?

In her book “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away,” philosopher and writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein imagines Plato on a U.S. book tour, speaking at Google, on a cable TV show and debating child-rearing at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Goldstein told Here & Now’s Robin Young, her idea is borrowed from her love of science fiction, where sometimes the story is built around “one preposterous hypothesis and everything else follows.”

Plato is the most influential thinker in the history of the West, so much so that one of the giants of 20th century philosophy said that the tradition of philosophy in the last 24 centuries, “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Goldstein brings Plato to life because she wants to demonstrate the continuing relevance of philosophy today, and to show that philosophy has also made slow but certain progress over the centuries.

Goldstein’s Plato finds the debates of our day — about democracy, childrearing and same-sex love — familiar. He has things to add to the debate, but he also has a lot to learn from us, not just science, but also ethics and morality.

Book Excerpt: ‘Plato at the Googleplex’

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Book cover image of

Dramatis Personae

Cheryl, media escort

Marcus, software engineer

Rhonda, narrator and Cheryl’s friend

The other day, I came into the city to meet my friend Cheryl for a drink and—her expression—a little tête-à-tête-ing. Cheryl and I are both New Yorkers transplanted to the West Coast. That’s one of the ties between us. It might be the only tie between us, but somehow we’ve fallen into the habit of being friends. We met at a pricey hotel bar on Nob Hill that’s decorated like an Italian bordello, with heavy red velvet drapery and gilded statuary. But it is—again Cheryl’s expression—quiet as a vault, which means you can hear yourself talk, even though, as usual, Cheryl did most of the talking. You can’t altogether blame her, given the interesting people she’s constantly meeting. She’s my own personal version of Gawker, a way of my getting a glimpse into the lives of the famous, the near-famous, and the willing-to-do-anything-short-of-landing-themselves-on-death-row-in-the-hopes-of-someday-being-famous. She was late, which was my first tip-off that something was up with her. Cheryl is super-organized, which is something you have to be in her line of work. Here’s how organized she is: while she was parking her Lexus, she called me and told me to order her a Long Island Iced Tea, which is a far stronger mixed drink than our usual Chardonnay.* The drinks were just being brought to the table when Cheryl arrived, amid all the jangling of the large silver bangles she was wearing. Cheryl is always in full Tiffany armor.

After she’d made her little joke about the waiters, who all act as if there were stiff entrance requirements enforced to get in here, including letters of recommendation from your high school math and English teachers, she settled down to tell me about her latest adventures escorting authors from one media event to another. Since everybody’s writing books these days, Cheryl gets to meet politicians, movie stars, all sorts of has-beens, alcoholics, and junkies, and even some authors who do nothing but write books. She’s got the knack, she says, so that people open up to her, and if she ever retires and writes a tell-all memoir she’ll need her own media escort as well as a good lawyer.

Boy, did I have an experience today, she launched in with little preamble. My author was a philosopher, which I just figured was going to be awkward and tedious. And he uses just the one name Plato, which struck me as not a little off-putting, as if he were on a par with a Cher or a Madonna. From the start I figured it was going to be one very long day, but I had no idea.

She took a long sip of her drink.

No idea at all, she continued. Plus his event was one of those Authors@Google things and that place always puts me on edge. It’s hard to breathe in the congested self-congratulation up there at the Googleplex. When somebody tells me that they work hard and play just as hard, which I hear every frigging time I go there, then I make it a point to roll my eyes . . . hard.

Cheryl rolled her eyes as she said this. Her coming down so hard on the Googlers for their high self-esteem is funny, in its way. If I had to escort the high-and-mighty the way Cheryl does, I’d be so intimidated I wouldn’t open my mouth unless absolutely necessary. I’m intimidated at one remove, just hearing about Cheryl’s authors. But no matter who Cheryl is escorting, she doesn’t know from awe. On the contrary, if you know what I mean. So it’s funny how irked she is by other people’s little gestures of self-importance.

Of course, there is the food there, she was saying. I always make it a point to take my authors to lunch there first. I’ve told you about the food there, right? I mean it’s gorgeous. Yoscha’s Café is my favorite. It’s huge and airy, and they’ve got dozens of food stations with different gourmet food so lovingly prepared you can just imagine the doting caretakers who sent their darlings out into the world. And of course it’s all free, as I explained to Plato. That’s the first thing to know about the food here, I said to him. They get breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever, absolutely free. It’s feeding on demand.

I’d hate that, I told Cheryl. I’d gain ten pounds in a week.

Yeah, well, apparently that’s a “problem”—she air-quoted—which they complain about in their bragging sort of way. We work hard, play hard, and eat hard, which makes us exercise hard. Oh, my goodness, can you possibly grasp what a bunch of superior people we are? Cheryl was rolling her eyes again. Anyway, she went on, Plato was listening to me very intently—it’s almost disconcerting how intently he listens—even though I was just rambling on, kind of free-associating, just trying to make conversation because I could tell this guy’s skills at small talk were not the highest. You know, very ivory tower, though with extremely good manners, almost something aristocratic about him. Also he makes eye contact, unlike a lot of these types. In fact, he makes serious eye contact. His stare is penetrating to the point of aggravating. Anyway, when I finally stopped to take a breath, he asked me: And what is the second thing to know about the food here? You see, he’s got this very logical mind. If you say to him, here’s the first thing to know about something, then you’ve also got to give him a second thing to know about it. So I said, well, I guess the second thing is that it’s yummy. And of course it’s local and organic and all those other kinds of things that people around here are into.

And he asked me, have you ever heard of the Prytaneum?

No, I answered, what’s that, some hot new restaurant?

He sort of smiled, which he tends to do more with his eyes than his mouth, and said, in a manner of speaking, yes, it is hot. The sacred fire of the city is kept going there at all times, its flame carried to any new colony established by the metropolis.

Well, of course, I had no idea what he was talking about, though I vaguely sensed he was making some kind of a joke. He comes from Athens, I forgot to tell you that, and even though I’d been to Greece on that cruise with Michael before the kids were born, the more Plato spoke, the more I realized that Michael and I hadn’t seen the real Greece. I mean, you have no idea of how different they do things over there, at least to listen to Plato describe it. Anyway, he told me, the Prytaneum also serves free meals.

So I said to him, no kidding! That’s quite a deal. How can they afford to stay in business?

It is run by the city, he answered, and the meals are mainly for those who have rendered extraordinary service to the city.* I had a friend who got into some very unfortunate legal trouble. Socrates was charged on two counts, impiety and corruption of the youth.

Corruption of the youth? That sounds pretty dark. Was he some sort of pedophile? I asked him.

Not in the sense that you are most likely thinking, he said, though he loved youth.

Well, I hope not in the sense that I’m thinking! I said right back at him, which made him kind of wince.

The charge was more a matter of his not accepting the moral values of his society and his encouraging the young to question them as well. And he was right to question them and to get us younger men to question them. As proof of how corrupt the society was, the jury ended up convicting him.

And you should have seen his face when he said that, Rhonda. This was the first inkling I got that there was a lot going on behind his façade. He’s a restrained kind of person—very, I don’t know, formal.

And it’s true that every time Cheryl spoke Plato’s words she took on a formality, speaking slowly and precisely, as if every word had been carefully considered. She’s a natural-born actress who just automatically slips into impersonations.

In fact, the longer the conversation went on, she continued, the more I could see glimmers of genuine human feeling going on behind his marble façade. I could tell from the tightening of his jaw and from the way his voice, which is very soft to begin with,‡ went even softer, how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.

So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?

Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.

That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. Are you sure that Socrates was just a friend and not something, you know, more?

Well, of course the thought occurred to me, too, Cheryl said. But you don’t just come out and ask someone about that, especially not someone like Plato. You know, my trick to getting my authors to tell me so much? It’s asking the question just to the side of the one that I really want to ask. So I just said, what a terrible story. Didn’t he have a good lawyer?

Lawyers, said Plato and smiled. I have heard of such people.

Well, of course you have, I said to him, again wondering if this was an example of some kind of humor, you know a lawyer joke, especially since he said it with a slight smile. He has a pretty stiff face, with very strong bone structure, kind of broad around the forehead, and he doesn’t make any sudden motions, facial or otherwise. You can see what a powerful physique he must have had when he was younger, and he still holds himself ramrod straight.

We have no such people in Athens, Plato said. Accusers accuse and defendants defend. Everybody acts as his own lawyer. Those who can afford to usually hire a logographer to write their speeches.

No lawyers, I interrupted Cheryl. He’s got to be putting you on. Whoever heard of Greece having no lawyers?

No, that’s what I meant about Greece being so unbelievably different, Rhonda. It’s kind of mind-boggling.

Are you sure this Plato isn’t one of your fiction writers? I asked her.

Well, if he is, he’s more convincing than any of them. I’ll never hear the word “gravitas” again without thinking of him. This guy is like hewn from gravitas. The procedure in our city, he said, is that if you are found guilty you get to propose the penalty that you think would be fair. Then the accusers pose another penalty, harsher of course, and then the jury votes on the penalty, often aiming for the mean. This procedure worked to Socrates’ detriment. My friend was famous for his irony, and he was not inclined to abandon it, not even with his life hanging in the balance. I should say especially when his life hung in the balance, since to cower before death, showing a readiness to do anything, throw overboard any principle, in order to stave off death just a few moments longer—for it is only a few moments from the standpoint of eternity—is unmanly.

That’s an interesting perspective you’ve got there on death, I told him, but just one helpful hint. I’d avoid the use of adjectives like “unmanly.” They can come off sounding sexist, as if you think maybe men are superior to women.

How’d he take that? I asked Cheryl.

Surprisingly well, Cheryl said, especially for someone so old-school. He thanked me for my advice, promising that he’d try to remember to avoid sexist words in the future. I have not failed to notice, he said, how differently women are regarded in your society compared to mine. It had always struck me as an unreasonable waste of human resources to keep talented women secluded in their homes, which is what our practice is.* Yours is a much more rational way of utilizing human potential. So let me amend my last statement and say rather that Socrates held it to be ignoble for a person to undertake an action with the only aim of postponing death, especially since the proposition that death is an evil turns out to be non-trivial to justify.† During his sentencing, Socrates made a point of mentioning Achilles, who is considered throughout Greece to have been the greatest legendary hero. Achilles had been given the choice of either a brief but glorious life or a prolonged but less exceptional life. Of course, Achilles made the heroic choice, and so did Socrates, though I should mention that my friend had already reached his seventieth year, so the option of a short life was foreclosed.* Nevertheless, he would not succumb to the indignity of acting only to eschew imminent death, especially when doing so required violation of the principles on which he had lived out his life. So when asked to propose a penalty that would accurately reflect his culpability Socrates responded that since he had performed an invaluable service to his city, trying to wake its citizenry from its sleep of complacency, and had never asked for any recompense for his services, the city, if it truly wished to show justice toward him, should vote him free meals for life at the Prytaneum. That was the penalty he proposed after he’d already been voted guilty of a capital offense (Apology 36c– d).

That’s some chutzpah your friend had there, I said to him.

Chutzpah? he asked me. This word I do not know.

Excerpted from PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



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In other Earth Day news, NASA is encouraging people around the world to pose a selfie with their local environment as a backdrop. You can tweet them with the #globalselfie, and NASA will use the selfies to create a mosaic image of the Earth.


OK. Thought exercise for you now. Imagine the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in the U.S. today on a book tour - it could happen - the most influential philosopher in Western history. How influential? Well, one modern authority said the last 24 centuries of philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato's dialogues in which he took up questions like what is love? Should society censor art? What's the best form of government?

What would he make today of a PR agent, of Google? How would he weigh in on the great debate launched by tiger mom Amy Chua on raising children? What would Plato teach us and learn from us? These are the questions philosopher and writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein explores in her new book, "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away." We invited her in to spend a few minutes here today. So, Rebecca, welcome back.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Oh, it's great to be here.

YOUNG: What a hilarious idea, have Plato be on a book tour. Plato, creator of philosophy as we know it, at the knee of Socrates. Remind us who he was.

GOLDSTEIN: Who they were, yes. So Socrates was a kind of gadfly. He was a sort of philosophical urban gorilla hanging around in the middle of Athens, asking these peculiar questions of everybody - important people, young men, slaves - questions that had to do with ultimately what's the life that's worth living. And Plato was one of the young men who hung around him, a very aristocratic young man, came from a very old, important family.

And Socrates was put on trial on the capital charges of impiety and corrupting the young - this was in 399 BCE - found guilty by his 501 jurors. And then he was supposed to plea bargain with them, and he ended up so infuriating them that more people voted for him to die than had voted for his guilt and he was executed.

YOUNG: Put to death.

GOLDSTEIN: He's put to death, yeah. You know, he so often speak as if the ancient Greeks were all philosophers. I mean, they were all so committed to reason. It's very important to remember that the philosophers were social dissidents. They were social critics. The man in the street or woman in the street did not particularly cherish what they said. Socrates was killed.

YOUNG: Well - and Plato picks up where he leaves off and takes his dialogues, these Socratic questions that he would ask, crazy questions in a lot of cases, but these questions that would get these dialogues going. And Plato, as we said, creates philosophy as we know it. So you bring him to today.


YOUNG: Why, first of all?

GOLDSTEIN: As a way of demonstrating the persistence of the questions that he asked, not necessarily the answers. And one of the things I want to do in bringing him back is to demonstrate how far we've come. It's something that's very often said that philosophy, as opposed to science, never makes any progress. Well, my Plato, when he comes back, is constantly being astounded, not just by the science and technology that we've learned, but by the ethical knowledge, the political knowledge, you know, what, no slaves? That never occurred to anybody in the ancient world that slavery was an abomination.

YOUNG: Well, you imagine him on a speaking tour, chaperoned by his media PR escort Cheryl. She gets into an amazing debate with him. It's over personal freedom and whether people are really equal. But it starts with an analogy with orthodontia.



GOLDSTEIN: Yes. In the dialogue - and, of course, Plato wrote in dialogue forms. And he often used these very homely analogies. It's about farmers, or it's about sheepshearers or, you know, they are these most abstract and lofty ideas but put in the language of very down-to-earth metaphors. And so I gave him a modern one, orthodontia.

YOUNG: OK. Relate that to personal freedom.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, it was - the question became whether or not there are philosophical experts. And this was a contentious debate in Plato's own day. Are there experts, ethical experts, that's very offensive to all of us? Because it's part of our humanity to have a stake in these questions to feel that we ourselves know the difference between right and wrong. And then along come these experts, philosophers, claiming, you know, an expertise, a special training, a special skill, a special talent. And that's where that analogy to orthodontia comes in, that Plato - there is - is arguing that if you have crooked teeth, you take them to an expert who knows how to straighten your teeth. Well, if you have a crooked life, it's very hard for you yourself to judge that. Maybe you need an outside expert. And that's where philosophy comes in.

YOUNG: Well, a Google engineer argues that Google has changed all of that.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. Yes. He has the idea that crowd-sourcing could answer these ethical questions. And he comes up with this, I think, fairly ingenious idea of a search engine. He calls it the ethical answer search engine, and these questions could be answered with EASE. That's the acronym of his search engine. And Plato was able to throw a monkey wrench into this idea.

YOUNG: He demolishes that.

GOLDSTEIN: He does demolish it. And often, what I try to do, I memorized all 26 of the dialogues so that I would know passages that Plato had actually written that were relevant to our debates so I could weave them in. Actually, I'm still tweeting as Plato because I just hear him constantly. I read something - I always try to weave in actual words of this 2,400-year-old man.

YOUNG: Could you give us a little bit from his dialogues and then from the words you actually gave him in your book to demonstrate to us how he did demolish that argument?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. Basically, he actually uses what he's learning from us, which is that we've made a lot of progress that there have been ethical reformers who went against the grain. And they proposed ideas that we couldn't arrive at through crowd-sourcing because they were new.

YOUNG: They were outliers.

GOLDSTEIN: They were outliers. So when, you know, the first people started to argue against slavery, for example, this was a new idea. If you crowd-source, you'd never come up with this. And so the - exactly the kind of progress we've made couldn't be made if we depend it on crowd-sourcing.

YOUNG: Philosopher and writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Her new book, "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away." By the way, if you'd like to follow Plato on Twitter - who knew? OK, it's her. It's @platobooktour. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.



If you've just tuned in, welcome. We're talking Plato and philosophy, and it's fun, because it's filtered through the imagination of MacArthur Genius Award winner Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who, in her new book, takes Plato on a modern-day book tour. The book is "Plato at the Googleplex."

Let's pick up where she has Plato as part of an author's panel at New York's 92nd Street Y, debating childrearing with two other authors. One, Sophie Zee, who sounds suspiciously like Tiger Mom Amy Chua; only Sophie Zee's book is called "The Warrior Mother." The other author represents those old school European-born child psychologists who say parents should do nothing to shape their children. Let them discover themselves.

And by the way, Rebecca Goldstein, you named that author Dr. Mitzi Munitz. Who is she supposed to represent?

GOLDSTEIN: I don't know. She just...


YOUNG: Oh, you made her up.

GOLDSTEIN: She kind of - you know, I think it started as a kind of Melanie Klein figure. And I had read a lot of Melanie Klein many, many years ago. And so it begun by having her in my mind, but as somebody who has a very strong sense of a child's autonomy.

YOUNG: Right. And let them become their own person.


YOUNG: Well, and where does Plato come down with these two extremes?

GOLDSTEIN: It's interesting. They actually give Plato a hard time because, you know, I think Plato's position is somewhat difficult. You know, everybody is struggling to refine their views in opposition to the other people. And I think that's one of the most important things that philosophy actually has to teach us that you have to air your views and bring them to the table with people - with whom you disagree very much.

Plato does talk a great deal about recognizing the characteristics of the exceptional child and of training it, of subjecting it to something far beyond the Warrior Mother or the Tiger Mother, and he gives us this program in The Republic, everything from the kind of bedtime stories they should be allowed to read, the balance between sports and music, and all sorts of things that actually the Tiger Mom talks about.

But he is trying to train exceptional children not just for the sake of, you know, having exceptional children. We all want our children to be exceptional. But - so that they will be the perfect leaders of his utopia. So ethically developed that we can trust them with all of this power. So it's really a political question that he's answering there.

Amy - I'm sorry, not Amy Chua. Sophie Zee and...


GOLDSTEIN: ...and my dialogue, you know, she just - you know, it's the responsibility of every parent to produce an off-the-charts child. And when Plato says, look, that's just not possible, that children have very, very different talents, she says, well, then it's in the immoral universe. Here you are saying Plato that the unexamined life is not worth living. And if it takes tremendous philosophical sophistication to live the examined life, are you telling me that some of our children can't live a life worth living? And that is actually - I think that's a vey important question to ask Plato.

YOUNG: And does he shift at all? Does he...

GOLDSTEIN: There's a certain opening that over the course of the book, I think he becomes a little more flexible on this issue. One of the interesting things about the ancient Greeks is that they really didn't have our conception of individual rights. They didn't have our conception of all lives matters. And it was really was true for them, that certain lives matter a lot more than others. It didn't dawn on them that all lives, although different, can be lives of equal mattering. And that is actually something a huge ethical lesson. It taken us millennia to learn and it's still going on. We're still wrestling with this question, expanding the boundaries of the lives that matter, trying to erase the inequalities that exist across the globe. That is something that we really have still to learn but certainly to teach the ancient Greeks.

YOUNG: Well, it is all here. One of my favorite allegories of Plato is allegory of the cave. The people chained in a cave, facing away from the opening of the cave to the wall behind on which they're watching this - the shadow puppet show. They're looking at the shadows on the wall instead of the real world behind them until one escapes and tries to tell them, you're only looking at the shadows on the wall. I love that. It applies so - I'm first to say this, but it - by far - but it just applies so to technology today, and how we're always looking at our screens and the shadows on the wall. And we're not looking at the thing outside the door.

GOLDSTEIN: Hmm. Mm-hmm. Yes.

YOUNG: How do you use it?

GOLDSTEIN: It is one of the most powerful metaphors that come from the history have law(ph) space(ph). And, you know, for Plato - Plato believed in our being able to make philosophical progress. For him, this is a metaphor of making philosophical progress. When he has Socrates say when he first paints this picture of everybody chained, there's - they can't even turn their heads and see them puppets, much less the world that exists outside the cave, and they're just staring at shadows and they're studying the shadows. They're expert shadowist. One of the respondents actually - it's Plato's brother - says that's a strange picture you're painting. And Socrates says, it's of us. That's the way we are.

And for him, and in particular for Plato, it was a picture of our ethical knowledge, that we are all prisoners of ideology. Plato was trying to break the bonds of Athenian ideology, of Athenian exceptionalism and saying, you've really haven't even begun to consider this question of what it is to live a life that's worth living.

YOUNG: You are only looking at shadow of something that's something that you already know.

GOLDSTEIN: Exactly. So dogma, doctrine, unexamined assumptions, that's what it is to be sharing that, the hippies shadow, no way of grounding it to reality. And he uses a word, a Greek work, agraphia, which means ungrounded. It's where we're just cut off from reality unless we can argue, we can substantiate, we can justify, we can convince each other.

YOUNG: You can listen to the guy who snuck out and said, hey, there's something over here.


YOUNG: Gosh, he- so he wasn't talking about the screen TVs?


GOLDSTEIN: No, but we sure can apply it.

YOUNG: Rebecca, your book comes after a very intense debate in the New Republic awhile back between your husband - Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker - and Leon Wieseltier. Your husband writing a plea from science to the humanities, saying, science is not your enemy. Leon writing, no, science wants to invade the liberal arts. It's essentially a debate who really has all the answers to the big life questions, science or, you know, ancient understanding. Put that debate aside, although it was juicy, what do you say?

GOLDSTEIN: Philosophy is this amazing technique we've devised for getting reality to answer us back when we're getting it wrong. Science itself can't make those arguments. You actually have to rely on philosophy, on philosophy of science. I mean, for example, just everybody have equal rights to a life of full flourishing, you know? I would say that philosophy slowly, slowly has given us arguments saying, look, you already committed to your own life flourishing, and you're being inconsistent if you don't expand it. So philosophy often works in trying to show us that there's an inner incoherence in our points of view. We're all committed to one thing when it comes to us and our own kind, but we're not willing to expand it and we're guilty of inconsistency.

That's the - a kind of trick that Socrates and Plato use over and over again. It's really very characteristically a philosophical technique. It's not the kind of empirical testing. It's arguing for inner coherence. But that - we can make progress using that. We have made progress using that.

YOUNG: That's philosopher and writer, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Her ingenious new book, "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away," in which she puts Plato on a book tour in the U.S., "Hilarity Ensues." Rebecca, thanks so much for talking to us about it.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, thank you. It's so much fun to be with you.

YOUNG: And, Jeremy, I'm looking at some of Plato's tweets from his book tour. Here he says, you know, I follow Aristotle, but he doesn't follow me back. A severe case of anxiety of influence, I'd say. Again, you can follow him/her @platobooktour.

HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.