For a solo pastime, reading can also be a rather social activity. Indeed, many of us love talking about books just as much as reading them, which helps explain why podcasts about books are so plentiful. But 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. As well, 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? With all of this in mind, here are the best book podcasts to 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?” In a similar political vein, the show’s latest episodes focus on banned books. You don’t have to live in Brooklyn to enjoy Borrowed, as each episode comes with its own curated book list, making the show a great resource that reminds us why we must fight to keep public libraries open.
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 is a literary institution. In circulation since 1979, the publication has also launched a bookshop in the trendy neighbourhood of Bloomsbury that plays host to many high-profile literary readings. If you consider yourself to be “well-read,” you’ve likely picked up an LRB at least once. Their podcast could have been pretentious. It could have been dry. But through careful curation and the right hosts, the show has become almost canonical in the book podcast genre. Hosts Thomas Jones and Malin Hay discuss all manner of subjects, from current affairs to Agatha Christie. One of the reasons that The LRB Podcast is compelling is that is examines the world from a literary perspective, rather than analyzing books from an outsider’s vantage. It will appeal to those who still distinguish between the “private” and “public” spheres — or if you have an opinion on George Orwell that has very little to do with whether you enjoyed 1984.
Whether you’re a defender of the canon or hungry for new literature, everyone has a list of books they’ve been meaning to read but haven’t quite got around to. Steinbeck, Austen — heck, have you read The Satanic Verses? Overdue is a podcast that rescues these sorts of books from your backlog, throwing contemporary literature and children’s books in with the classics, even covering high fantasy and cult favorites in the process. But if you’re feeling guilty for never finishing Middlemarch, worry not. Hosts Andrew Cunningham and Craig Getting have no interest in making you feel bad about your literary limitations. Overdue is a celebration, not a critique. And, most importantly, it’s a show packed with humor and insight. You can hear the joy the hosts take from reading radiate through the airwaves — after all, serious literature doesn’t need to be a drag. Just watch out for spoilers.
Following the success of You’re Wrong About and Maintenance Phase, podcaster Michael Hobbes launched his newest show last year to immediate acclaim. If Books Could Kill is a podcasts that debunks popular self-help and “smart thinking” books commonly purchased at airports and quickly discarded at your nearest thrift store. Think Atomic Habits or Rich Dad Poor Dad. With the addition of his pleasantly droll co-host Peter Shamshiri of 5-4 fame, Hobbes has perfected a popular format that could reinvent itself endlessly. As far as independent podcasts go, this is how to launch one. As we’ve mentioned before, the quest to “debunk” something because it’s harmful is a fair pursuit. Debunking things just because they happen to be popular, however, risks becoming self-indulgent. Nevertheless, If Books Could Kill is one of our favorite launches in recent memory.
Terrible Book Club
You know those books that make you ask yourself, “Who could possibly be reading this?” Well, Terrible Book Club probably is. If you’ve ever been morbidly curious about what’s really going on in those cursed pages, join Chris and Paris every other Tuesday to find out!
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.
NPR’s Book of the Day is a daily show focused on the latest novels, poetry collections, and children’s books, delivering inspiring conversations in the time it takes to drink your morning coffee. The podcast doesn’t discriminate against genres, either. Non-fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy books are all considered, allowing the listener (read: me) to expand their literary horizons. As is typical from NPR, the production is smooth. Smoother, even, than your medium roast. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the pace of our world, Book of the Day is a welcome addition to a slower morning routine.
Backlisted has been around for almost a decade. In that time, it has grown to become one of the most popular book podcasts in the genre. Rather than focusing on the latest releases, the show turns attention to older novels, particularly 19th and 20th-century works. The show’s appeal can be attributed to a few things. Consistency. Knowledgeable guests. Steadily improving cover art. But the thing that keeps listeners coming back is the genuine fondness for literature that is palpable from everyone involved. You can fall in love or rekindle your interest in a novel after finishing an episode — a rare feat, even in a genre abounding with praise for reading.
Book podcasts tend to have two main problems: on the one hand, they can be rambly and unfocused; on the other, they can be so specific that their discussions become dry. Backlisted avoids both of these traps. Hosts John Mitchinson and Andy Miller know their James from their Wharton.
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.”
Every year, at literary festivals around the world, writers and readers gather for talks about books. It’s a simple format. A moderator offers a vaguely sycophantic line of questioning to a tired contemporary writer who will inevitably dodge the subject to return, once again, to their reading of Freud. Or Marx. Or — well, you get the picture. Nevertheless, the literary scene can’t get enough. Some people love talking about reading more than actually reading. If your feed is full of book podcasts, you might be one of them. We don’t judge. And the host of Reading the Room won’t either. Host Jaylen Lopez, of YouTube fame, invites literary writers to discuss their latest work in conversations that could be plucked from a sell-out talk at The Strand or Books Are Magic. If you are between literary festivals, Reading the Room will tide you over.
Alice Florence Orr is a staff writer and assistant editor for Podcast Review. She is based in Edinburgh. You can connect with her on Twitter or read her work on aliceflorenceorr.com