This last year or so I have become positively addicted to podcasts, especially those that manage to teach me something and be incredibly entertaining at the same time. These past few months, I have spent many a train journey learning about astrophysics, British history, ancient philosophy… It’s educational, fun, and a great way to multitask to boot. Have to spend an afternoon cleaning your room? Long car trip ahead of you? Going grocery shopping? Waiting at the dentist’s? Put on a podcast!
Since there are about a million podcasts out there, it can be difficult for a newcomer to know where to start, which is why I have put together a list of recommendations for you. So put on those headphones and follow me. You might learn something.
On this weekly podcast, two veterans of the publishing industry discuss literary trends, forgotten works they think deserve more attention, and offer lots and lots of book recommendations. If you are nearing the end of your “to read” list (ha!), Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman have plenty of suggestions. They devour a lot of books in a year and are very passionate about what they do, so give it a listen if you are interested in hearing what “the professionals” have to say.
This is a talk show hosted by Stanford professor Robert Harrison. He interviews guests on a wide range of topics, not all of them literary, and every couple of episodes, he gives an hour-long monologue on a certain theme (like, for example, lightness and heaviness in art). Like with In Our Time, the quality of the episode depends on the guest in question, but the discussions are usually in-depth and cover… Everything you can think of, really. If you are an academic omnivore like me, this is well worth a listen. The show is currently on hiatus, but there is a great archive of past episodes to explore. Start with topics you are familiar with, then spread out to those outside your comfort zone.
Technically, this is not a podcast, but a radioshow (BBC Radio 4, to be exact). However, since the episodes are available in podcast format, I’m including it anyway. On the show, host Melvyn Bragg discusses a range of topics with his guests, who are usually academics and specialists on the topic in question. The BBC has neatly organised the archive of episodes in separate categories: Religion, Philosophy, History, Science, and Culture. This show is not as accessible as some of the others on this list because it is aimed at an educated audience with some knowledge of the field. However, this does mean that the discussions are a lot more in-depth and not just a layman’s introduction. The quality of the episodes really depends on the guests: sometimes the debate can be a bit boring and dry, but there are also true gems, like the episode on Shakespeare and literary criticism where professor Jacqueline Rose mercilessly attacks the (increasingly grumpy) critic Harold Bloom and his rather conservative reverence for the literary canon. Glorious. My advice for this show: pick and choose.
On this show, writers dive into the New Yorker archive of short stories, pick their favourite, read it out, and then discuss it with editor Deborah Treisman. It is a great way to learn more about how writers read and what they look for in a work, and discover some lost and/or forgotten American gems along the way. However, one major downside is that new episodes come out sporadically instead of on a regular basis.
As you may have guessed, this podcast has a similar format: a poet dives into the New Yorker archives, digs up a poem they like, and discusses it with host Paul Muldoon. The only difference is that on this show, poets also read from their own work.
Always wanted to learn about philosophy, but find the actual texts impossible to get through? Look no further! Philosophize This! does a great job at explaining theories and concepts, clarifying the historical and cultural contexts they sprung from, and showing how they are still relevant in our daily lives. The show started off a bit rocky, but creator Stephen West has really grown as a presenter who is figuring out through trial and error how this podcasting thing works. Bear with him, the content is worth it. West makes philosophy accessible, fun, and shows that these are questions we grapple with every single day, whether we know it or not.
On this weekly program, actors read out short stories centered around a certain theme, like ‘transformations’ or ‘social climbers.’ There have only been six episodes so far, but I’m already hooked. Mary Louise Parker reads Dorothy Parker! Denis O’Hare reads Neil Gaiman! Perfect if you have an hour to spare.
This show is 2014′s podcasting hype; it is huge. It shot to the top of the iTunes charts, the press can’t stop talking about it, fans create elaborate theories… It is Serial madness. In this series, reporter Sarah Koenig discusses a murder case: in 1999, Baltimore teenager Adnan Syed was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. However, there is a lot that does not add up about the case and two years later, Syed’s lawyer was disbarred for malpractice. Koenig goes back to see if it is possible that Syed is innocent, like he says he is. She talks to his old neighbours and classmates, listens to police tapes, digs through records, and all she finds are more things that do not make sense. Koenig does a good job at weaving a complex story while also continuously pointing out that she is a flawed observer and that she does not always know what to believe, whether there is anything she can believe. In the end, Serial may not be able to draw any definite conclusions as to what happened that day, but it does expose how unreliable our memories are and how people can perceive events in many different ways. Is there any way we can ever recover the objective truth about the past? Fascinating and incredibly addictive.
Ah, 2013… It was the summer of Hannibal, House of Leaves, and the very first podcast I ever listened to: Welcome To Night Vale. And what a game-changer it was. This series went from an obscure little project to international popularity with live shows across both the US and Europe, a book of Night Vale stories on the way, a cross-over episode with podcast giant the Thrilling Adventure Hour, and a seriously devoted fandom. The show is a fictional radio broadcast from the curious town of Night Vale, where librarians are monsters, angels are most definitely not real, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home has filled your browser history with Bing searches for “the melting point of birds.” She’s probably harmless. But you shouldn’t sleep in your home anymore, just in case.
Seriously, I cannot recommend this one enough. It’s funny, well-written, and genuinely touching. Download a few episodes and let Cecil’s voice carry you away to this mysterious place. You won’t regret it.
Once a month, Harriet Gilbert interviews an author about his/her most famous work and takes questions from listeners and the studio audience. Since this show is broadcast on the BBC World Service, the focus is not just on British authors, but covers writers from all over the world. The Netherlands, Turkey, Australia, Egypt… The list goes on. Definitely listen to the episodes on authors you know, but don’t be afraid to tackle new names!