How 'Seinfeld Book Report' allows MU professor to reflect on the show's literary tastes

Written by Aarik Danielsen for the Columbia Daily Tribune 

For those with eyes to see, "Seinfeld" houses its own strange and specific library, books and magazines scattered through scenes, literary references landing certain punchlines.

With a "giddy up" that's gentler than any Kramer ever delivered, Donald Quist leads you into that world.

This summer, the University of Missouri English professor launched his podcast "Seinfeld Book Report," a conversation about the deep literary cuts and deeper meanings embedded within the 1990s TV classic. And like an all-time show with a notoriously shaky first season, the podcast only progresses with time and patience, its creator said.

"Much like the series, I do get better," Quist said with a laugh. "If you want to jump to current episodes and maybe go back to the first season later ... it is a mirror."

The Seinfeld Chronicles

As a '90s kid, Quist sensed "Seinfeld" and its importance in the atmosphere, even if he preferred the fast-paced feel of ABC's "TGIF" lineup. He saw the cast's Rolling Stone covers, heard echoes of setups and jokes.

"I wasn’t around a water cooler, but kids at lunch were talking," he said.

The show hit home as an adult, in a moment where home was a distant notion. Studying in southeast Asia, unable to return the language, Quist's days passed largely in silence. A friend sent him packing an eternal hard drive full of pirated TV shows.

Revisiting Season One, Episode One — "The Seinfeld Chronicles" — Quist both recognized the unfinished nature of the show and felt a gravitational pull into its orbit. The Washington D.C.-area native heard a certain East Coast music, one that made innate sense, in characters' inflections and rhythms.

"It could be because I was missing the sound of English in my ears," he said.

By Season Two's iconic "Chinese Restaurant" episode, Quist counted himself a disciple.

Years later, putting himself through crucial paces of finishing his Ph.D., he started the series for an eighth full watch. Meant as a respite, "Seinfeld" stimulated the very parts of his brain engaged in reading for comprehensive exams. He started a spreadsheet, cataloging an episode's literary allusions, then sitting with the connections each reference evoked.

Reading the fine print

The show's interest in books and literature is nothing less than a series of Elaine Benes plots, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character navigates New York's publishing world. But, as Quist discovered, it's so much more. Watching the show an eighth time, he identified "an attention to literacy that I think has to be intentional."

Quist credits key creative forces like co-creator Larry David and producer Alec Berg, both devoted readers, with working books and periodicals into the show's fine print. A nude subway passenger pores over the New York Times; Jerry's mother thumbs through a romance novel while his dad handles an auto magazine.

Through their characteristic specificity, David and Co. captured a moment when literacy played a key role across the broader American culture, Quist said.

These are the moments "Seinfeld Book Report" concerns itself with; Quist discusses seemingly minor details within a greater context — how Jerry Seinfeld's comic-book obsessions reflect back on the novels of Michael Chabon, where a "Moby Dick" punchline lands, what the show has to say about the lineage of self-help texts.

The podcast quietly, thoughtfully chips away at ever-flimsy barriers between so-called high and low art. Auto magazines, comic books, mass-market novels; they all qualify as literature to Quist.

Elaine Benes, novel queen

"Seinfeld Book Report" also gives Quist a form to express his fathomless affection for Elaine Benes, who he called "the heart and head of the show." At a time when female sitcom leads largely existed to roll their eyes at their male peers, Louis-Dreyfus created her own book of revelations.

"In the ‘90s, in primetime television, there are few female characters that are as varied and nuanced and complicated as Elaine Benes," Quist said.

Elaine is "reasonable until she isn't," he added, relatable in all the ways she identifies the absurdities of life, then eventually trips over them too.

Inspired in part by his relationship with Monica Yates, the daughter of "Revolutionary Road" novelist Richard Yates, Elaine allowed David to recast details gleaned from his nearness to the publishing world. Those plotlines ring with laughter and authenticity, Quist said.

"The best satire is an artist sending up something they actually love," he said.

'One of my favorite episodic novels'

Watching the show again through this literary lens, Quist expressed surprise at the references he misses still.

"So now I’m wondering 'Will it be circular forever?' " he said.

The writing housed within "Seinfeld" stands up to time's tests better than most '90s sitcoms, Quist said. More insensitive or incurious aspects do reveal themselves with each viewing, he said, but he appreciates the show's willingness to at least wade toward thornier subjects.

Quist begins most podcasts with a "corrections" segment, allowing him to amend mistakes or gaps from previous episodes, and to "self-interrogate" how he's interacting with "Seinfeld's" more precarious humor in real time.

Early in Episode One, describing his background, Quist refers to himself as "a doctor of stories" and "Seinfeld" lives within a captivating class of narrative. Art historian Erwin Panofsky distinguished between "monuments" and "documents," Quist said; the latter help us make sense of the former, the larger cultural phenomena we live through.

"Seinfeld," Quist said, is a document.

"Whether I’m reading 'Don Quixote' or reading (Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's 2023 novel) Chain Gang All Stars and loving it, or (Don DeLillo's) White Noise, I’m attracted to the stories in which an author takes the chance to try and document a particular place at a particular time, recognizing that in that act it touches on something that people do inherently through time," he said.

Physical and narrative documents are flawed, Quist said — they bear their share of spills and "splotches," of observations that eventually fail us. But they help us endure, nudging us forward, he said.

"In that documentation, we get a chance to see how we’ve changed and how we are the same. And so ‘Seinfeld’ does that. It is one of my favorite episodic novels," he said.

"Seinfeld Book Report" is available to download and stream wherever you listen to podcasts.