For some bookworms, the only thing better than reading books is talking about books. Prose, plots, characters, themes, genres, authors, news and recommendations — these conversations can span astounding breadths and depths, with fan(atic)s throwing in the odd bit of trivia or by-the-ways.
Like Irish journalist Caroline O’Donoghue, who, while discussing the 1977 bestselling romance novel The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, said, “[She], not a nice lady. I did some research — she was a b___.”
Oh yes, bookish conversations can get spicy. Which makes them perfect fodder for podcasts.
Literary podcasts are hardly novel. Just weeks ago, The New York Times celebrated the 15th anniversary of in-house podcast The Book Review. The publication’s longest-running podcast has only missed delivering new weekly episodes once, for a period of three consecutive weeks at the start of Covid-19’s spawning in March 2020. That a literary podcast could be well into its teens might surprise the non-reader, but there is simply so much to talk about and such fun to be had in the process.
That quote by O’Donoghue, for instance, was mentioned in her podcast Sentimental Garbage, self-deprecatingly titled for the vintage chick lit she explores with delightful irreverence and joy. While talking to cookbook author Ella Risbridger about Jacqueline Susann’s 1960s adult novel Valley of the Dolls, Risbridger says, “You should probably have some kind of drink with it.” To which the journalist candidly confesses, “Oh yeah, I was so drunk reading so much of this.”
Exchanges like these are reminiscent of a book club, a fun and intimate space where the best and worst of titles on the table can be claimed and contested. Only now, no personal invitation is necessary.
Introverts who might have shied away from such gatherings for fear of having to participate can tune in to these conversations, and there are so many of them happening all around the world. Low barriers to entry in production means almost anyone can get one going, and we are the better for it.
Diversity is a major issue being championed in literary circles (check out the interview-based Minorities in Publishing podcast by publishing professional Jennifer Baker) and hearing from a wide pool of perspectives allows for colourful voices and invaluable insights.
For one, minorities are able to highlight local authors or chew over themes relevant to current affairs or their communities. AAWW Radio is a podcast hosted by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which describes itself as a “literary arts space at the intersection of migration, race and social justice” as well as “a sanctuary for the immigrant imagination”. Roxanne Gay, Amitav Ghosh, Ocean Vuong and Hanya Yanagihara have been featured, and genres span poetry, feminist comics, lyric verse, literary fiction and post-colonial politics, with a recent episode including audio from AAWW’s event Anti-Asian Violence and Black-Asian Solidarity Today.
Instead of just lurking around forums or browsing through Goodreads’ comment sections, these perspectives and opinions now play out on car radios or earphones, covering everything from guilty pleasures to interviews that allow fans to hear from authors themselves. The BBC Radio 4 Book Club is famous for the latter, encouraging listeners to ask authors burning questions that keep them up at night: Margaret Atwood was asked if the impetus for The Handmaid’s Tale was anger or art, and Gail Honeyman, how a psychologist would diagnose protagonist Eleanor in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The Evening Standard aptly describes its approach as “authors high, low and every brow”, perfect for the well-rounded reader.
Some of the better-known podcasts are naturally run by big-name media — Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and The Hindu among them — as well as Penguin Books (fortnightly The Penguin Podcast) but there are just as many gems by independent names with something for every literary appetite. Genres can be generic — romance (Smart Podcast, Trashy Books; or When in Romance), Asian-American (Books & Boba), or mystery and thrillers (Read or Dead) — or niched, such as comic-book relationships (Comic Book Couples Counselling). There is even a podcast dedicated to chronologically examining every book in Ann M Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series (The Baby-Sitters Club Club).
Hosts are usually bookworms themselves and their genuine enthusiasm is often contagious. Even if you know nothing about the titles or genres covered, unexpected finds and provocative content await. After all, for the write-minded, time not spent reading or talking about reading could be well spent listening to others talk about reading.
Through local lenses
Western perspectives have long dominated conversations about literature, but podcasts are offering local voices a platform for such discussions. Check out what these Malaysians have to say about all things books.
Possibly the country’s most famous literary podcast, TBNT is hosted by writers Diana Yeong and Honey Ahmad who, true to name, absolutely geek out on page-turners. The show was launched in 2018 and quickly found its footing, amassing almost 30,000 downloads on Spotify since. Tune in for sharp insights, witty repartee and reviews of popular reads from around Southeast Asia. The occasional author interview pops up too, with past guests including Zen Cho, John Connolly and Hannah Alkaf. Episodes average between 30 and 60 minutes, but could clearly go on for longer — the duo never runs out of steam.
Promising a celebration of books and a love of reading, By the Book underscores a joy for literature with rigorous scrutiny of subject matter. Sharmilla Ganesan and Lee Chwi Lynn produce and present this show as part of BFM’s Evening Edition and deliver the same interlacing of critical thinking and humour that defines much of the radio station’s programming. Discussions run the gamut from Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson to fairy tales, social justice and local releases and events. Emphasis is given to representation and delicate subjects are sensitively dissected with input from authors and experts. Expect thoughtful debate, articulate opinions and plenty of laughs.
Launched to share invaluable travel tips and resources with women, information platform Zafigo now also caters to the armchair travellers among us. Founder Marina Mahathir is no stranger to the transportive powers of a good book, and hosts this weekly show to talk about everything from historical biographies to French cookbooks. The “bookcast” is just a month old but already features gripping content, including the challenges women face in the publishing industry, a guide to great Indian writers and a chat with Tash Aw about homegrown literary talent. Thumbs up for the show’s acronym, a very apt BRB (be right back).
Third culture kid and public health researcher Aimee Lee teams up with women’s rights advocate Joshua Teh to share their bookish obsessions on When All is Read and Done. And it is a fairly extensive list of interests, including family sagas, migrant stories, graphic novels, literary fiction and non-fiction. Their academic and professional backgrounds add weight to complex debates and while hard topics such as diversity and rape culture are tackled, they are done so with empathy and compassion. If honest conversation and a tsunami of book recommendations are your thing, this fledgling podcast might gain a permanent spot on your playlist.
This article first appeared on Apr 26, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.