Literary podcasts worth listening to

At the start of the first lockdown, I wrote a Boar article about how much I valued podcasts. This was the case before we were all shut indoors for months on end. I would often listen to podcasts on long walks, during household chores, rushing around a supermarket, or quickly trying to sort through emails. Having those voices in the background provided a comfort as I undertook often menial tasks and tried to make them somewhat interesting.  

Being a politics student, a large proportion of those podcasts would naturally be related to current affairs. I am a news obsessive, and so being tuned into the news helped not only my degree, but fed my personal interest in what is going on in the world. However, listening to pure politics all the time, while never dull, can get unhealthy. Trading one type of podcast for another, therefore, allows me to access another world without needing to go anywhere.  

Arts podcasts are a firm favourite of mine, not least related to books or culture. Sometimes, they can appear tricky to get into. With news podcasts, you need only read any current affairs website and you will have a rough idea what the presenters are talking about. By contrast, book podcasts, it may seem, require you to have read the book, or at least have an awareness of the author or genre, in order to get the most out of the discussion. 

Even though this can seem jarring and make such podcasts sound exclusive, I have never found this to be the case. What the best literary podcasts do is serve both the readers aware of the book under discussion, but also complement this with trying to convince new bookworms with what literary treasures they should check out (or try to avoid!)

Both the multitude of discussion topics alongside the range of authors interviewed ensure that both books and their podcasts have many generations to go

Radio 4 has an eclectic mix of arts review programmes that try to serve this very purpose. For my money, Radio 4 is the jewel in the crown of BBC Radio. With its range of drama, news shows, comedies and cultural programmes, the station alone justifies the licence fee (even though you don’t actually need one to listen to radio). Programmes like Front Row always offer a fascinating insight into the cultural news every single weekday, including a review of the latest literary fiction. At weekends, Saturday Review and Pick of the Week ensure that, culturally, nobody is left behind.  

A Good Read is a great listen. Solely devoted to books, its presenter Harriett Gilbert invites two guests on, each of whom has chosen a book they believe to be a good read. Along with Gilbert, they spend half an hour discussing each of the three books in turn. I like this programme precisely because you don’t need to have read the books to find it engaging. The guests usually try to avoid spoilers and the pleasure instead comes from the quality of their arguments in trying to convince readers to add it to their eternal ‘to read’ list. The programme gets particularly fun when the panellists disagree about the merits or otherwise, sparking a great debate that is exactly what literary criticism should be about.  

Alongside this is Open Book. Formerly presented by the legendary Mariella Frostrup for more than a decade, its current presenters, Elizabeth Day and Johny Pits, offer a comprehensive guide to the  latest literary reads, news and trends. Containing a mixture of interviews with authors, reading trends, and forthcoming awards, it ensures that every listener finishes the programme more aware of the literary world than when they started.  

So many podcasts of all genres are interview-based. One presenter interviews a different individual each week, trying to keep the audience with them. Though the podcasting world is saturated with them, each show can remain interesting and engaging if the questions are original and themes are well explored. Two book club podcasts have, I’ve found, followed this trend especially well.  

What the best literary podcasts do is serve both the readers aware of the book under discussion, but also complement this with trying to convince new bookworms with what  literary treasures they should check out (or try to avoid!)

Firstly, The Spectator’s The Book Club podcast with Sam Leith probably has the best podcast music of all time. Involving a different author each week, the choices of book range from the latest fiction, to historical novels, ensuring that the wide variety of Spectator readers are well served. Though the options are naturally high brow, as one would expect from The Spectator, Leith’s engaging, conversational style, forthright questioning, and enthusiasm for readers ensure that listeners are swept along.  

Secondly, The LBC presenter Iain Dale also manages this week in the Iain Dale’s Book Club podcast. Also inviting a different guest each week, the topic of the book is usually linked to politics and current affairs. However, he has included fiction writers like Fern Britton on the show as well, demonstrating his ability to serve both the politically engaged (such as myself), alongside those for whom politics is a secondary interest. Every interview with Iain ends with you learning more about the author than at the start and, even if I don’t necessarily intend to purchase the book, it has not been a wasted listen.  

The Intelligence Squared podcast, although not necessarily book related, is, unsurprisingly, a podcast that tries to convey intelligence. Involving discussions and debates on the big issues of the day, it will often host live events that attempt to bring an audience together to focus on a topic worthy of more attention. While the intensity of discussion can sometimes seem slightly beyond my academic faculties, I nonetheless salute the podcast for celebrating the need for intelligent, rigorous discussion as a worthwhile end.  

Ultimately, finding a good podcast is always based on luck. There are so many out there, many of which don’t deserve the time of the day. The literary podcasts I have discussed above, however, all leave the reader feeling more enlightened and truly aware of the power of words. Both the multitude of discussion topics alongside the range of authors interviewed ensure that both books and their podcasts have many generations to go. As a listener and reader, that is simply wonderful news.

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