Around eighteen months ago I started getting into podcasts – that wonderfully diverse (and constantly expanding) world in which you can listen to people talking about pretty much any interest you might have. For me, that interest is books, and fortunately there is a wealth of excellent literary podcasts out there – from publishing-industry news to author interviews, book round-ups to writers’ discussions. Everyone likes to listen to something a bit different, but as I often find myself recommending book podcasts I thought I would create a short list of my current must-listens.
I tend to listen to podcasts when I run – I find people talking in my ear a far better distraction than music when things start to hurt – and have sampled plenty over the last year or so. I don’t want to provide an exhaustive round-up or pretend that this is a definitive list; I’ve listened to a lot, but certainly not all. Instead, these are the five podcasts for reader and writers I find myself returning to again and again. I am also always looking for new podcast inspiration, so if you have any favourites, please do share them in the comments.
What to expect: A weekly podcast of roughly half an hour, which discusses current or forthcoming releases on the UK market and news from the book world in general (prize shortlists, big publishing deals, controversial topics and so on). Each episode generally takes the form of an author interview followed by a presenters’ discussion.
Why I love it: Presenters Claire Armitstead, Sian Cain and Richard Lea are some of the most natural and enthusiastic podcast hosts I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Conversation is chatty and relaxed while also being knowledgeable and in-depth, with each week’s author discussion led by a different presenter so that the interviewing style never feels samey. The podcast also covers pretty much every type of writing out there, fiction or non-fiction, and regularly discusses translation and independent presses. For frequency, duration, quality and sheer listening pleasure, this is my absolute favourite – I’ve never missed a week.
Update: as of Tuesday 21 April 2020, the Guardian team has stopped recording. Having already written this post (and being both unable and unwilling to find such a brilliant podcast to fill its shoes at short notice), I’m including it on this list anyway. Maybe one day they’ll return to the airwaves – and in the meantime, there’s always the back catalogue.
What to expect: The US equivalent of the Guardian Books Podcast, only more like an hour long and featuring only one regular presenter. Pamela Paul typically interviews two authors of books recently or soon-to-be released, finishing each episode by getting NYT book critics into the studio to discuss what they’re currently reading. There’s a fairly even mix of fiction and non-fiction up for discussion, plus mention of important news from the world of publishing.
Why I love it: I enjoy getting the view from across the pond and find Pamela Paul to be a clear and thoughtful interviewer. The podcast has a relatively serious tone, but the range of authors is varied and sometimes gives me a heads-up on new books long before their UK release. My favourite part is invariably the wrap-up segment in which each critic discusses a current read. These often seem to have nothing to do with work, so it’s a great way to be introduced to classics, children’s books or under-my-radar authors, with the critics taking a heartfelt, personal approach to reading.
3. A Good Read
What to expect: A kind of celebrity book club hosted every month by Hariett Gilbert on BBC Radio 4. She and her two guests each pick a ‘good read’ in advance of the programme, all three of them read the books, and then they get together to discuss their thoughts. Sometimes guests have similar tastes, sometimes they don’t, and Hariett herself can nearly always be relied on to pick something I’ve never heard of.
Why I love it: I greatly enjoy listening to people discussing books, and A Good Read is incredibly easy on the ear. Guests are varied – some read a lot, some clearly don’t – and as the books discussed usually aren’t new releases, it provides much-needed variety in my monthly listening. Discussion is lively (disagreeing is positively encouraged) and conversation is free of any kind of insider knowledge or industry expertise. Even when it’s about books, there’s only so much news you can take in a week, but this podcast doesn’t aim to teach me anything – it’s simply interesting people giving their opinions about books.
What to expect: The radio broadcast/podcast arm of Tin House, one-time literary magazine and now independent US-based press. Hosted by David Naimon, episodes consist of long (think one hour plus), in-depth conversations with some of the world’s greatest contemporary writers: Zadie Smith, Richard Powers, Carmen Maria Machado and Jenny Offill have all featured recently. As well as this, Between the Covers plays recordings of ‘craft’ lectures delivered by authors and industry experts at the legendary Tin House writers’ workshops, on topics ranging from how to write dialogue to finding your audience.
Why I love it: Not many podcasts go into as much detail in their author interviews as this one does, so when I do find myself with a spare hour or so I love to get really involved. The conversation on Between the Covers tends to be pretty wide-ranging, moving away from the standard questions asked in publicity interviews. As an aspiring author myself, I also find the craft lectures invaluable – I can only dream of attending a Tin House workshop myself, but being able to listen to excerpts feels like I’m a little closer to being there.
What to expect: A podcast from The Arabist, Bulaq is a roughly fortnightly podcast devoted to contemporary literature from the Middle East and North Africa. Writers from Syria, Egypt and Morocco are often featured, with readings from their works and spirited conversation between the two hosts about why they love these books and consider them important. Expect wide-ranging discussion of the politics, society and history of this part of the world, all seen through its literature.
Why I love it: Without knowing nearly enough about it, I find the Middle East to be a fascinating region, and I’d love to explore it more in translated literature. Of all the podcasts on this list, Bulaq is probably the least polished, but for me that makes it stand out even more – I can sense how much effort goes into it and appreciate how real it sounds. Hosts Ursula Lindsey and M. Lynx Qualey are clearly incredibly knowledgeable about their subject and I leave each episode feeling inspired to expand my reading horizons.
Honourable Mention: Burley Fisher’s Isolation Station
Recording a podcast isn’t an easy business right now, and I’m hugely admiring of how all the above have kept going despite the odds. And I’m perhaps even more admiring of how the enterprising folks at independent London bookshop Burley Fisher Books have taken it upon themselves to set up a new podcast in response to the current UK lockdown. This certainly isn’t the slickest of productions, but its charm lies precisely in the fact that it sounds homemade. I like the laughter, the occasional pauses, the bookshop plugs and not-quite-professional interviewing techniques. Listening to this is like getting together with your friends and a bottle of wine to talk about mainly books – and under the current circumstances, I think that’s something we’d all give a lot for. Hats off to the Burley crew for their wit, enthusiasm and ability to make me feel a bit closer to real people.