The pandemic has many of us reading, walking, and listening to podcasts more than we ever have before. So why not combine all three things? Here’s a roundup of some of the best book and literary podcasts currently available.
The Book Review
The declarative title, the theme music—busily sombre classical strings—are your cue that this is the podcast of record, as far as books (and the show’s producers) are concerned. Begun in 2014, the New York Times’ weekly show has book section editor Pamela Paul doing in-depth interviews with big-name authors, followed by a “What I’m Reading” roundup with Paul and section associates. With the full weight of the English-speaking world’s most influential books section behind it, this is an obvious and worthy place to go if you want to hear directly from the writers behind major new releases.
Also consider: Guardian Books
Not in the mood for those self-serious New York Times strings? Then consider the crackling carnival music that opens this delightfully warm British podcast your antidote. Backlisted’s aim is “giving new life to old books”—“old” meaning, in this case, not antiquarian or obscure, but deserving of a wider readership. Rarely has a promise been so well kept. Hosts Andy Miller and John Mitchison and their well-informed guests bring an enthusiastic giddiness to each bi-monthly installment. A recent episode sees the panel reduced to infectious laughter while discussing the food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, while another has Andy explaining how his late-blooming passion for Anita Brookner led him to devour all 24 of her novels.
Also consider: Vintage Books
The History of Literature
Don’t let the scholarly-sounding title or baroque strains (strings again!) of its opening put you off. This “history” isn’t delivered in the form of lectures, but rather anecdotally, via host Jacke Wilson’s unpretentiously wry, digressive style. During the show’s recent Alice Munro week, for example, Wilson compares Munro’s form to Stephen King’s then segues into the brilliance of various Rob Reiner films before returning to the subject at hand: “She’s so generous and insightful with the smallest of observations and at the same time, just when you think she’s going to give you something, she pulls back, and you’re left alone with a haunting image, and the memory of your own expectations.” Touché.
Also consider: KCRW Bookworm
The Magnus Archives
In this wildly popular horror anthology podcast, the new head archivist of the (fictional) titular institute, Jonathan Sims (the real name of the show’s terrifically talented writer/narrator), transcribes reports of the weird and uncanny—about which he is often haughtily dubious—as a cassette-tape player gentle whines in the background. The tales themselves, standalone but also ingeniously interlocking, are, thanks to Sims’s coolly sinister delivery and the podcast’s crackerjack sound design (think the New York Times’ podcast-intro string quartet under collective possession), genuinely unsettling. I binged it outdoors on a hot summer’s day and still got chills.
Also consider: Phoebe Reads a Mystery
Now in its fourth year, Fictional is a classic literature spinoff of host Jason Weiser’s highly entertaining podcast Myths and Legends, in which he performs cheekily contemporary readings of everything from King Arthur to Slavic folklore. As with its predecessor, Weiser pulls off the impressive feat of making his hilarious, snark-laced retellings (from Dante’s Inferno: “Dante blinked awake. Something was off. He didn’t remember falling asleep in a dark forest that was an allegory for his own separation from God. Few do”) as suspenseful and compelling as the originals (e.g., Weiser’s take on W.W. Jacobs’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw”). Addictive, and a sly way to introduce the teen in your life to the classics while sharing a laugh.
Also consider: Myths and Legends
The lure of this podcast is a snoop around famous authors’ bookshelves, but the hook is the irresistible, bookish-sex-kitten accent of its host, the serendipitously named literary journalist Daisy Buchanan. Though podcasting economics dictate that most of the authors are within a stone’s throw of Buchanan’s London, UK base (which, granted, isn’t exactly limiting), she’s also taken field trips to Ireland, L.A., and Baltimore, where, in one particularly memorable episode, filmmaker John Waters gives Buchanan an in-depth tour of his vintage porn-book collection (Cesspool! Carnival Sin Girl! I, Pervert!).
Also consider: Smart Podcast; Trashy Books
New Yorker: Fiction
Listening to the high-calibre chat in this long-running podcast, in which a writer chooses and reads a story from The New Yorker’s vast archive before discussing it with the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman, makes you realize how rare nuanced literary analysis is these days. And there’s plenty of top-notch CanCon on offer too: Mavis Gallant, a long-time contributor to the magazine, has been read four times, including by fellow Canuck Margaret Atwood (who gets borderline scolding with Triesman in another episode, on pal Alice Munro’s “Corrie”). Atwood herself gets read by A. M. Homes, and Sheila Heti by novelist Ottessa Moshfegh.
Also consider: Between the Covers
The Paris Review
The self-styled “world’s most legendary literary magazine” has put together a sumptuous, dreamlike podcast whose gorgeous soundscape, which often incorporates commissioned music, and flowing segments sets it well apart from shows of similar ilk and aspiration. Drawing, like The New Yorker, on the magazine’s impressive historical vault of material, the podcast artfully combines archival interviews with authors like Tennessee Williams and Toni Morrison with star-studded short-story and poetry readings (Marc Maron reads Sam Lipsyte, Dick Cavett James Salter). Sublime.
Also consider: Selected Shorts
Have You Heard George’s Podcast?
This justifiably lauded two-season (so far) BBC podcast (it won, among other awards, a Peabody) helmed by British-Ugandan musician and spoken-word artist George Mpanga (aka George the Poet) is sui generis: audio autofiction and social and political commentary mesmerically conveyed through verse and music. Early episodes touched on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, while the final installment of the second season has George explaining to “Britain” (Anne Isgar) why he briefly accepted, then rejected, an offer to become a Member of the British Empire (“the gesture is deeply appreciated; the wording is not”) and how you can love your country while being horrified by its colonial past.
Also consider: New Yorker Poetry
The few standalone Canadian literary podcasts out there (excluding those that originated as radio, like CBC’s Canada Reads, The Next Chapter, or Writers and Company) have a low-fi, direct-from-the-garage feel, which isn’t a bad thing. Semi-Prose is produced by Penguin Random House Canada, with all four of its hosts (Evan Munday, Max Arambulo, Allie McHugh, and Kristina Chin) being past or present employees, so don’t expect acerbic criticism of the books covered.. Still, repartee between the quartet and their writer-guests is consistently lively, intelligent and probing, and the show, laudably, often ventures outside PRH’s vast stable of writers, with a particular focus on Canadian writers of colour.
Also consider: Can’t Lit
It is, unbelievably, over 30 years since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa, or death sentence, against Salman Rushdie for the perceived blasphemy of his novel The Satanic Verses. This smartly paced, 10-part BBC podcast reassesses the so-called Rushdie Affair, placing it in vivid social/historical context and speaking to those on multiple sides, including erstwhile liberal, mainstream Muslims who found themselves radicalized by the debacle. Revealed also are the edict’s little-known British origins.
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