ASK THE NATIONAL — Book Podcasts

What podcasts about books should I be listening to?

Media watchers have proclaimed 2015 “The Year of the Podcast.” The quality of podcasts – and the technology for downloading and listening to them – has never been better.  There are a lot of great book-related podcasts – so many that a short discussion can only scratch the surface.

One of the best book podcasts is one of the most basic: NPR: Books, which collects segments from across the NPR programming line-up. It has short news items from the literary world and longer book-related features, like a “Fresh Air” episode in which Terry Gross interviews David Foster Wallace.

The New Yorker has an excellent fiction podcast, hosted by fiction editor Deborah Treisman, which includes readings and conversation.  Recent episodes have featured George Sanders reading Grace Paley and Joshua Ferris reading Robert Coover.  The New York Times Book Review podcast, presented by editor Pamela Paul, offers insights from authors and critics, and industry news.

 “The Lit Show,” which is produced at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, delivers informative discussions on everything from new books to the writerly craft—such as a recent talk on “Beginning, Middle, End—Between the First and Final Drafts.”  Books on the Nightstand is a highly engaging podcast by two Random House employees who offer an insider’s view on books, writing, and the book industry.  

There are some excellent online book clubs. Slate’s Audio Book Club leans toward the books everyone is talking about: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman or Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See.  BBC’s World Book Club is a conversation about great books, including classics like Guenter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, often with the author participating in the conversation, and readers around the world asking questions.

For a more scholarly take, there is a remarkable array of online university literature courses available as free podcasts – including Oxford University’s “Approaching Shakespeare,” Yale’s “American Novel Since 1945,” Missouri State’s “Classical Mythology,” and many more – easily searchable on iTunesU.  Oxford also has a winning collection of short lectures on classic authors and books, running about 10 minutes each, called “Great Writers Inspire.”

One of the most enjoyable book podcasts isn’t really about books.  The radio show “Desert Island Discs,” which BBC has broadcast since 1942, asks guests for eight musical pieces they would bring if they were cast away on a desert island and plays them.  At the end, guests are asked what book they would bring – in addition to the Bible and the collected Shakespeare. The selections are fascinating, ranging from Prime Minister David Cameron asking for The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to Stephen King requesting Collected Poems of W. H. Auden, to Whoopi Goldberg’s must-have: Rainer Marie Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

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