For a solo pastime, reading can also be a rather social activity. Book clubs are thriving in the pandemic. We love talking about books just as much as reading them, and even as libraries close down, other technologies have stepped in to facilitate discussion. Now that people are reading more, it follows that all areas of the industry are launching podcasts to connect with their readerships over the airwaves. For this reason, podcasts about books are plentiful, but you shouldn’t judge one by its position in search engine results. For all the choice, the book podcast genre is starved for innovation. Author interviews, although inspiring, quickly become repetitive. And many shows feature the same guests promoting the same books. To remedy this, some podcasts begin with an enticing conceit —Book fights! Desert island novels!— but these ideas are often revealed as gimmicks. Others, merely dull. Just as reading shouldn’t be a chore, neither should listening to a podcast.
Rather than dwell on tired formats, we should tune into the shows that make us feel zealous about reading. Podcasts are the perfect medium for elevating genre fiction, with shows like Read or Dead putting the spotlight on categories like mystery and crime. Book podcasts allow us glimpses of other people’s shelves, creating a sense of community with readers that we’d never otherwise meet. What better way to find your next great read? Here are nine of the best book podcasts that will get you excited about reading.
Borrowed, despite its name, feels original. Plenty of public libraries now have their own podcasts. Many of them are excellent, like those from the NYPL. Borrowed, by the Brooklyn Public Library, does things a bit differently. The show has moved away from interviews and book reviews to deliver stories sourced from its local community, stories like the history of Black women’s suffrage, why Brooklyn produces so many great writers, and tales from the library itself, asking that question we’ve all been dying to have answered: “What do librarians do all day?” You don’t have to live in Brooklyn to enjoy Borrowed, as each episode comes with its own curated book list, making the show not only entertaining, but a great resource while we wait for libraries to reopen.
Hosted by writer Adam Vitcavage, the book podcast Debutiful is a show celebrating the strange, thrilling, and often terrifying experience of being a debut novelist. Listening to an interview with an author still wet around the ears is a gratifying experience. Sure, missing will be those pearls of wisdom that only come from writers who have been working for decades, but these newbies add an essential perspective on contemporary fiction. Fresh voices like Brandon Taylor, Cherie Jones, and Zak Salhi remind us that great new talent is emerging every day. Vitcavage is a host who believes in his show, making Debutiful a slick and rewarding passion project.
The London Review of Books boasts several podcasts, among them Close Readings, analyzing the lives and work of twentieth century poets, and At the Bookshop, covering the latest releases. LRB Conversations makes this list because of its variety, the pleasure of the show being its breadth of subject matter. In each episode, one of the LRB’s rotation of hosts speaks to an expert about their new book, but rather than presenting a formulaic interview, the podcast focuses on the subject at hand, whether it’s medieval midwifery or country music. The result is a stimulating weekly listen that covers writing on history, science, and the arts with the kind of measured intellectualism you can expect from the LRB.
Reading lets us immerse ourselves in the experiences of others, but it’s become clear that our required reading lists are often limited to certain perspectives, featuring the same books that have been there for decades. Don’t get me wrong, The Great Gatsby is, well, great. But arguably — and the hosts behind Reading Women would agree — it’s important to read widely. For five years, the Reading Women podcast has been highlighting women’s fiction through monthly themes and author interviews, promoting intersectional reading through topics like Indigenous writing, working class narratives, stories about mental health, and most recently, reading trans women. With over a hundred episodes in their archive, Reading Women invites us to “reclaim half the bookshelf.”
The New Yorker: Fiction podcast features a monthly reading and conversation with some of the most renowned, exciting, and accomplished writers working today. Interviewed by the magazine’s fiction editor herself, Deborah Treisman, each guest reads a piece of prose — most often a short story — by another author previously published in The New Yorker. This podcast perfectly blends discussion with an exploration of the magazine’s vast archive, providing a pleasurable insight into how writers inspire each other with their work.
For years, chick-lit has been mocked as silly or poorly written. Tired of feeling guilty about reading romantic romps and period dramas, journalist Caroline O’Donoghue started Sentimental Garbage, a weekly podcast dedicated to discussing new chick-lit releases. This genre has a new name now — women’s commercial fiction — but the books featured are hardly trashy. Novels by Jeffery Eugenides and Curtis Sittenfeld, for example, are hardly bodice-ripping historical fantasies, but Sentimental Garbage does a great job of analysing a genre that is “literary,” but not quite enough to be forgiven for their commercial success. In the show’s recent mini-series, “Sentimental and the City,” Dolly Alderton of the widely missed The High Low joins O’Donoghue to discuss every season of the infamous TV show. Not technically a book, but a delight all the same.
Books & Boba sets the standard for how to host a book club through a podcast: consistently good content, enthusiastic hosts, and a varied reading list. Based in California, hosts Marvin Yueh and Reera Yoo are focused on books by Asian and Asian American authors, but their choice of genre is wide and inclusive. Their scope includes sci-fi and fantasy, historical fiction, and contemporary literature. Their monthly episodes are interspersed with news updates and author chats, but at the show’s heart are interesting and nuanced discussions of the novels. And let’s be honest, that’s the reason we sign up for book clubs in the first place.
Little Atoms began life as a radio show in 2005. It was a small production made from a little studio above an Indian takeaway in London. Although, sixteen years later, the show has grown into an informed and successful podcast, Little Atoms remains delightfully. Nearing seven hundred episodes, the show demonstrates all the strengths of an indie press by responding quickly to developments in literary culture. Their interviews are diverse and include big names and new writers, covering both fiction and nonfiction. Little Atoms crosses genres, making each episode release exciting and unpredictable — just how I like my literature.
Self-described as “tough love for literature,” I would say that Book Fight pulls no punches, but the hosts would probably make a comment about my use of cliché. Hosts Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister are happy to give critiques, making examples of essays, classic literature, and the occasional contemporary novel for their literary hot takes. Their comments are constructive and, admittedly, often warranted. Their analysis of the legacy of David Foster Wallace is the highlight of their compelling creative nonfiction season, a great example of content that appeals to readers and writers alike. Book Fight has created an active listener community by inviting their audience to respond with their own criticism, a welcome inclusion in the show, if only for comments like this: “I don’t agree with everything Mike and Tom say… but the opinions are considered, entertaining, and often funny.”
Alice Florence Orr is a staff writer for Podcast Review and is based in Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in Scottish Review, Like The Wind, and Nomad Journal. You can connect with her on Twitter or Instagram.