A conversation with Leah Toth


    We spoke with Leah Toth about the art of soapmaking, riding for Lindsey Buckingham, the magic of vinyl records, feeling comfort from looking at the moon and why education leads to humility and awe.

    A solid education and overall sense of thoughtfulness can give students a sense of their very small place in the world and a greater appreciation of its wonders.


    Morgan Enos

    First off, tell me about your professorial work. What brought you into this field, what do you learn from your students and what do you think a solid education and overall sense of thoughtfulness can give Western society?

    Leah Toth

    My scholarship is in 20th century literature and my subfield is sound studies. That’s a fairly broad subfield that encompasses all manner of sounds, both musical and nonmusical. I knew I was interested in modernism fairly early—as an undergraduate in a modern novel class. The interest in sound is a natural outgrowth from my nearly lifelong interest in playing music. Once I figured out a way to combine the two, as a 22-year-old in an MA-level James Joyce class, I was all set!

    I learn from my students every week. Unlike their professors, students don’t have these deeply entrenched ways of thinking about things — well-trodden neural pathways, I guess — that their professors do. I sometimes envy them for being 20 and reading Virginia Woolf for the first time. I remember that mind-altering experience, but I can’t be there again; depth of knowledge, while valuable, can’t rival the excitement of discovery.

    A solid education and overall sense of thoughtfulness can, I think, give students a sense of their very small place in the world and maybe also a greater appreciation of its wonders. For me, at least, the more educated I become, the more I’m aware of what I don’t know, and that’s humbling. Most of us could stand to be more humble because feeling humble makes us listen. I think there should be more listening.


    I’d like to rewind from there and talk about you as a child. What was your personality and demeanor like? What made you happy or pissed off? How do you relate that to your life today?

    Whether you talk to my husband or my mother, a word that comes up a lot is “stubborn.” Hell or high water, I always did what I wanted to do, and from what I understand that was rather trying for my parents. But I also had a strong sense of curiosity: my mother, to this day, calls me “Question Box.” If my students thought about it very much, they might call me “Dr. Question Box,” because I still ask a lot of questions. Luckily I’ve found a career where asking questions is a substantial part of my daily life.


    I understand that you have a rather powerful connection to Lindsey Buckingham. I’ve noticed your posts about The Buck on social media, even in response to the passing of unrelated musicians. What intrigues you about this particular guitarist?

    Funny story: I once thought I hated Fleetwood Mac. I had heard “Don’t Stop” a few too many times in the ’90s, and I had such a strong association of that song with that band that, in my stubbornness, I insisted that I hated Fleetwood Mac. My husband James, ever the tastemaker, tried and eventually succeeded in proving to me that I actually liked them a lot. He caught me unawares by playing me some of the weirder tracks on Tusk (“The Ledge,” “Save Me a Place,” “Not That Funny,” for example) which I subsequently became obsessed with. I think I singled out Lindsey because he’s such a genuine weirdo — this is borne out by everything after Tusk and certainly by his solo work but maybe also by the early “coffee plant” demos he recorded with Stevie.

    I think he intrigues me because I appreciate singularity in artists. When you hear a Lindsey Buckingham song, there’s no confusing it for someone else’s song. I get the sense that he’s always himself, and in a world of boardroom-conceived pop stars and focus group-tailored television shows, I admire that quality more than any other in an artist.


    If art is our salvation, how could we not love, at least on some level, the people who make it?


    Beyond Fleetwood Mac lore, I’d like to explore why we connect with famous artists at all. I’ve been nearly inconsolable since the passing of Tom Petty, but beyond his huge contributions to American song, I think it’s because he was mostly a friendly face, a presence on concert DVDs and other media where it was just good to see him. Why do you think we connect with painters, singers, guitar players and other creatives the way we do?

    One reason artists are so important is because they give shape to the chaotic world we all seek to find meaning in, and sometimes they can paint the most mundane aspects of life with the prettiest colors. They are also our teachers in so many ways: they can show us how ugly the world is while simultaneously showing us its beauty. And, you know, they have the power to mystify and anger and terrify us, as well. I’ve been reading Harold Pinter lately, and I’m struck by how unsettling his dramatic worlds are; how a play within five pages can turn from funny to sad to menacing.

    I guess what I’m saying is that we connect to artists because they hold up a mirror to the full range of our capabilities and limitations. They help us feel what it means to be human. Did you ever read James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues”? Perhaps the most succinct way to answer your question is to quote Sonny’s brother, who refers to music as “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” That’s what art is, to me. If art is our salvation, how could we not love, at least on some level, the people who make it?


    To bring up a more unconventional form of artistry, how would you describe the process of making soap to someone completely unfamiliar with the field? Is it a challenging or relatively simple process?

    Soapmaking is very satisfying, especially for those of us who work in fields where immediate gratification is impossible. At first, there is no soap. There is lye, water, and a bunch of oils. Combine them just right, and there is soap! And you never have to buy any again because you can make it yourself. It’s a very simple process, but most people are afraid of it because it involves close contact with a corrosive chemical. I can see why that would be scary, but it needn’t be if one is careful.

    Running my record label, I’ve found, leads to similar results: there’s a recording, which is then mastered, which is then pressed to vinyl, and so on. There’s tangible gratification that is somewhat immediate — certainly more immediate than waiting two years for an article to be published!


    In your work, creativity and life, do you think it’s more valuable to go out or to stay at home? Day-by-day or night-by-night, what’s your ratio of doing either of those things?

    I think both are important although I do much more staying in than going out. Part of that is the result of my career — academics are truly always working, and if you see them out in the wild it’s usually because they’re rewarding themselves for working hard or they’re desperately avoiding deadlines. Another part of it is that I like being at home. I have a long daily commute, so getting to stay home and chill out with my husband or my neighbors — who are all really good friends of mine — is very satisfying. We also currently live in a walkable city, so “going out” often means walking to a nearby pub or café, and due to the proximity of those places, it feels more like staying home than going out.

    I feel happy when the moon looms large and full and heavy in the sky, especially on a cool fall evening.


    I feel as though nostalgia is more potent than ever in entertainment – we’re ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s kids, we remember this or that TV show, we had such-and-such dated outfit as per any period of time. But I’d like to focus on the ongoing march of science and technology – do you feel nostalgic about any appliances or devices that were prevalent in your childhood?

    I think the most obvious thing for me to mention is also pretty predictable — record players. I loved listening to my parents’ records when I was growing up, and I never really lost that fascination. I didn’t have a way to play records for a long time, but around my 30th birthday I bought a record player and started collecting records. I’m so busy most of the time that it feels like a luxury to sit down and listen to them, but I always enjoy it when I do. It’s a real pleasure to put a record on the turntable and lie down on the floor and listen while perusing the artwork and liner notes. A common pleasure among people our age, to be sure, but an undeniable one, nonetheless.

    This is one of the reasons I wanted to start Footfalls Records. I feel like something is lost when we listen to mp3s or streams of music while we do something else. Somehow, listening to a record feels like more of a deliberate act than streaming a playlist. I mean, you have to flip the record, so at the very least, physical involvement is required at that level.


    I’d like to return to my earlier question about education. As you observe your own students, how do they react to the current era of fake news, anti-reality sentiment and having an often willfully ignorant leader of the free world?

    I don’t want to tell you how long I’ve been teaching, but I can say that students in 2017 are remarkably savvier and more politically aware than students were a decade ago. (I remember explaining to a rhetoric class–at a big state university, no less–what the differences were between “conservatives” and “liberals,” and the majority of them sincerely did not know.) If anything, the current political climate seems to have made them pay more attention, and in rhetoric classes I can use that to get them to ask good questions and seek thoughtful answers. They are more driven to do that than ever before.


    Finally, please briefly meditate on these three objects: manuscripts, towers and the Moon. Do you have any stories, anecdotes or distant memories concerning these? What immediately comes to mind?

    Ha — this feels like a game of association! I wish I could give more enigmatic responses here, but the truth is that when I read and attempt to meditate on the word “manuscripts,” I can only really think of the one I am working on, which is the book project that has emerged from my dissertation. I’m constantly ruminating on it, I assure you. When I think of towers at the moment I think of Leonard Cohen’s song “Tower of Song,” so I have this vision of Leonard hollering up the halls at Hank Williams about loneliness. Great song! A June baby “moonchild” myself, I feel happy when the moon looms large and full and heavy in the sky, especially on a cool fall evening.

    Thank you.


    Conversation: 57
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: October 31, 2017
    Total questions: 9
    Word count: 1812
    Reading time: Seven minutes
    Hyperlinks: 10


    Discovery: Excitement
    Menace: Harold Pinter
    Moonchild: Yes
    Shadows: Light
    The Buck: Singular
    Question box: Leah Toth


    About the subject

    Leah Toth is a professor at Hampden-Sydney College and runs the label Footfalls Records.


    About the curator

    Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.

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