A week or so ago I published a news brief on the demise of The Washington Post 's Book World podcast. It was a podcast I had been listening to religiously almost from the day I got my first iPod. The books and literature section of the iTunes podcast directory was the first set of pages I visited, and what I found there was a veritable cornucopia of delight for any book lover with ear pods. This was before I even had a chance to get a look at the audio books pages. I began subscribing to everything that was there: The Guardian Books Podcast, Authors on Tour — Live, The Classic Tales Podcast , and on, and on.
Some of them I unceremoniously dumped after a few weeks. Book Lust With Nancy Pearl never quite delivered the titillation its title promised. KCRW's Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt, was much too impressed with his own voice that more often than not his questions seemed to go on longer than the poor authors' answers. Podcasts from Yale University were aimed at scholars with different priorities.
Some of them I kept around a little longer, the BBC's Book Reviews With Simon Mayo, for example — and this despite the facts that for some reason he regularly had his panel of reviewers take the time to describe in detail the book jackets under discussion but even more importantly that they hardly ever found anything to dislike in any of the books they were talking about. Some like Book World disappeared of their own accord. The CBC's Talking Books, a feisty irreverent review show, unfortunately called it quits after eleven years.
There were, thankfully, always replacements waiting on the bench to take their place. The serialized novel reading podcast Between the Covers, replaced when it seemed obvious we were getting abridgments, was succeeded by Magdalena Ball's Compulsive Reader by way of Australia, courtesy of Blog Talk Radio. The overly erudite Harvard Press: Author Off The Page gave way to the BBC's World Book Club.
Now as I take the time to search for a replacement for the late lamented Book World, I count nineteen separate podcasts devoted to books and literature. This includes readings of poetry, short stories and novels, author interviews, book club discussions, and reviewers. It doesn't include theatrical podcasts, although to omit Shakespeare from the category of literature seems something of blunder, to say the least. It doesn't include podcasts that regularly feature authors and literary reviews in their more eclectic formats — podcasts of shows like NPR's Fresh Air, despite the fact that often when a new book comes out, its author becomes ubiquitous. When Richard Price was on the road touting Lush Life, it was almost impossible to escape him. Recently, it's been Michael Chabon and Paul Rudnik making the rounds for their newly published essays. Repetition is one price of addiction.
As I look for podcast number twenty, I try to define some criteria for the many candidates still out there. I look to those podcasts that have stood the test of time for models. Number one: I want a host who loves books, knows something about them, but is willing to allow the author the spotlight. I want someone like Terry Gross, whose guests are always taking the time to tell her how wonderful her questions are. I want someone like Eleanor Wachtel, the hostess of Writers and Company, who seems to have read everything everyone of her weekly guests has written, yet never seems to pompously pontificate a la the Bookworm.
I want to hear what literate readers think about what they have read. The Slate book club discussions are always lively and informative whether they're talking about Tolstoy or Evelyn Waugh. The World Book Club opens up the discussion to ordinary readers, ordinary but perceptive, and allows them to ask questions of authors they admire. This is a scenario sure to appeal to any book lover.
Intelligent, dynamic readers, like those on PRI's Selected Shorts, with the capacity to bring life to the printed page, would be welcome. There is something exciting about hearing the poetry of Robert Burns in the native dialect that overwhelms the fact that the American ear might not always understand what is being said. There is something to be learned from hearing an author read her own work. One thinks of a writer like Dickens enthralling audiences with his readings of Bill Sykes' death and Scrooge's transformation. Podcasts that give us the opportunity to hear modern day Dickenses are something to be cherished.
Finally, I want a podcast that is adventurous, that is willing to take its listeners beyond the tried and true, the popular novel that everyone is reading — not that I don't want that, too. I want a show to make me aware of the writer I haven't heard about, the book that has gone under the radar, the new voice. I want to hear about the Dickens they'll be talking about in ten years.