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Book Reviews Are Moving from Print to Podcasts

PUBLISHED: February 10, 2009

The decline of print book reviews has received plenty of deserved attention from the NBCC and other organizations. This development is certainly something to lament and to work to rectify, but there’s also a tremendous amount of quality coverage of books and culture available on the internet. Arts & Letters Daily is probably the best of the aggregator sites, presenting a bevy of content in a simple, eye-pleasing format that doesn’t strive for the screaming, in-your-face, tabloid style of The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. Part of the beauty of A&LD is that there is no aristocracy: all are treated equally. Pieces from blogs, newspapers, esoteric journals, and magazines are lumped together under the categories “Articles of Note,” “New Books,” or “Essays and Opinion.” Like any good cultural gatekeeper, quality is what counts—not masthead—although they do have a clear preference for original material in established media, rather than the call-and-response format that often characterizes the blogosphere.

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing here if I didn’t think that there is plenty of worthwhile cultural content on blogs. So, let’s skip over them for now and move on to what I think is a less discussed but still very worthwhile medium: podcasts. These are a tricky thing. iTunes makes it easy to find and subscribe to podcasts, and there are lots of great podcasts out there. But if you want to make a routine out of it by listening to podcasts on an iPod on the way to work, that requires a daily synching and updating of the device. When our days are already so heavily routinized by minutia—tooth brushing, breakfast making, coffee drinking, key finding, briefcase or bag packing, lunch making, and the numerous other little tasks that circumscribe and define our workweeks—it can be difficult to keep up or to remember at all. That is the beauty of a device like an iPhone, which allows one to conveniently update podcasts over the air. Charging remains the only concern.

Say you’re more organized than I and have the routine down. What, then, to listen to? I love Leonard Lopate’s podcasts, which in a single day might cover life in Nazi ghettos, eminent domain law, the origins of the Great Depression, and medical explanations of love. NPR has a fine books podcastFresh Air, and podcasts for practically all of its other material. When looked at in combination with their excellent website, it’s then no surprise that NPR is one of the few outlets (if not the only) to have recently increased its books coverage.

Ed Champion’s “Bat Segundo” interview show is frequently provocative, entertaining, and a little weird. Champion is also interesting because he, through his podcasts, his website, “Edward Champion’s Reluctant Habits,” and his criticism, is part of the vanguard of culturally concerned writers who have translated internet popularity into remunerative, mainstream journalistic success. Mark Sarvas (of the blog The Elegant Variation and with a novel, Harry Revised, now out), Maud Newton, and Jessa Crispin (Bookslut founder and now NPR contributor) also belong to this group. (Perhaps to be more accurate, they are redefining how writers may enter the “mainstream,” which itself is being forced to shift to connect with a new, more digitally connected generation of readers, writers, and consumers.)

Rounding out my list, I also enjoy B&N’s “Meet the Writers” (though I wish the interviews were longer), New Yorker: Out Loud, KCRW’s Bookworm, and KCRW’s Politics of Culture. There are many other appealing shows out there that I don’t have time to get to—even many of these I only manage to listen to sporadically—but I’m going to try to dip into the new Yaddocast to see if it sheds any light on the much mythologized Yaddo artists’ community.

So which podcasts, cultural or otherwise, do you listen to? Are you able to keep up, or is struggling to track such variegated forms of media—blogs, podcasts, print, TV, Internet journalism—more trouble than it’s worth?


ScottSimpson's picture
Also in iTunes, there’s a room devoted to book-related (and otherwise literary) podcasts called “Book Lovers”: One of my favorite language-related podcasts is PRI’s “World in Words,” a fun and insightful look at how language works: On a slightly more philosophical bent, “Entitled Opinions” is pretty great: Finally, the podcast version of the BBC’s “In Our Time” is the best gift from Britain since basketball (they invented basketball, right?):
Waldo Jaquith's picture
I used to listen to a lot of straight-up podcasts, but increasingly I find that I’m only listening to podcasts that were originally broadcast on the radio; that is, ones that are just time-shifted by their comparatively well-heeled creators: Science Friday, This American Life, and Radio Lab. Also, TED and The Moth. I also subscribe to Weekend America and Studio 360, but never actually listen to those unless I’m driving a long way and have exhausted all other options (which might be an accidentally-astute commentary on the cancellation of the former). I used to subscribe to Coverville, but I really prefer to cherry-pick those episodes, since I’ve never heard of half of the songs or artists. Not a literary one in the bunch, now that I look them over. But, hey, why take my work home with me? :) Thanks for those suggestions, Scott. Were I smarter, it would have occurred to me to consult you on this topic beforehand!
Brian Sholis's picture
To your lists I would add CBC Radio’s “Writers & Company.” The show’s host, Eleanor Wachtel, is as thoughtful an interviewer as KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt. Her recent interview with David Grossman, taped before a live audience in Vancouver, is wonderful. I would also add XM’s Bob Edwards Weekend (iTunes link), which covers many topics (like Fresh Air or Leonard Lopate); the podcasts of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (web link), which consistently features the history profession’s most eminent members; the New York Review of Books podcast (iTunes link); and Philosophy Bites (web link), which features topic-specific brief interviews with philosophers from around the world.
Jacob Silverman's picture
Thank you all for the suggestions. I’ve subscribed to the CBC Radio: Writers & Company podcast (I love David Grossman’s work and see that they’ve interviewed Cees Nooteboom; that’s enough for me). And I’m a bum for not noticing that “Book Lovers” room. Thanks for pointing that out, Scott.
Jeff's picture
Jeff · 15 years ago
I like the concept of podcasts but I rarely listen to any. Maybe one every few months. It just doesn’t fit into my daily life. Actually, as for book reviews, I prefer just one short paragraph. Most book reviews of fiction tell me way more about the book’s plot than I want to know. As for reviews being literary criticism, I only want to read that after I’ve read a book. I do love long reviews of non-fiction but usually come away with a satisfied feeling that I no longer need to purchase the book.
Bobby Styles's picture
Bobby Styles · 15 years ago
To someone who doesn’t listen to podcasts, this was very informative. Thank you, Mr. Silverman!
Holloway McCandless's picture
The Guardian (UK) Books podcast has long, rangy interviews that can be quite entertaining (Zoe Heller’s from Sept is on iTunes but it’s about to expire). The BBC (UK) World Book Club podcast is also good, though it can devolve into adulation when the audience asks questions. I tend to subscribe on iTunes but only download the authors I’m interested in. If you like to listen to short stories, the New Yorker Fiction podcast is great (you can listen to Junot Diaz reading his “How to Date…” podcasted on 6/1/07, though usually the stories are read by other NYer authors, with mini interviews by Deborah Treisman). PRI: Selected Shorts podcasts are also good for shorter timespans–usually two stories in one hour-long podcast. On I do reviews & some links to podcasts, though the most recent posts are all poetry-related because of V’s Day.

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