Five Great Literary Podcasts

By Katy Kelleher

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved books on tape. When I was young, my family would take long drives into the deserts of New Mexico or the mountains of New York. In order to keep four loud, opinionated kids quiet, my parents would turn to audiobooks, recordings of our favorite stories. We would stop fighting and poking each other long enough to listen to a grave, solemn voice read us Native American fables, or a story about Beethoven as a young man. My favorite audiobook was always “Julie of the Wolves.” Somehow, the narrator brought to life the journey of a young girl alone in the Alaskan wilderness. When the wolves howled, I felt a thrill of excitement, and when her terrible fiance (who Julie had run away to escape) spoke, I remember feeling a deep dread. On tape, these stories came to life.

As an adult, my taste in literature has changed, but my insatiable desire to reach the next chapter remains alive and well. Now, I find myself sitting in the car after long trips, wanting to listen just a little longer. Once, after a four hour drive through Pennsylvania, I stayed glued to my car seat for a full hour while Stephen King’s Gunslinger stalked his way through the dark.

Unfortunately, books on tape can be really expensive, which is why I’ve turned to podcasts to fill my iPod. Often, the latest episodes of podcasts are free on iTunes, making them the perfect way to pass the time during a long trip. It has all the pleasure of a spoken story, with none of the obsessive need to hear the rest (after all, most podcasts are fairly short, topping out at an hour at the most). And just in case you, like me, love to hear stories read aloud, I’ve rounded up five of my favorite literary podcasts. They’re no “Julie of the Wolves,” but they’re pretty riveting all the same.

New Yorker: Fiction
The most wonderful thing about The New Yorker’s podcast is that it features writers reading writers. Though not always the best orators, it is truly wonderful to hear David Sedaris speak about why he adores Miranda July, or to listen to Dave Eggers speak about how Roddy Doyle is one of the greatest writers of dialogue alive today. Each episode begins with a brief introduction of both the author and the reader, followed by a short story of the reader’s choice. At the end, fiction editor Debroah Treisman comes on to speak with the reader about the story. Not only do you get to hear a fantastic piece of fiction, you also get an inside look at how writers read.

The Moth
I first came upon The Moth while listening to This American Life (another favorite podcast of mine). Less highbrow than some of my other choices, The Moth is a recording of spoken word events. Performers and writers tell their stories as an audience in New York sits raptly listening. Stories range from humorous and light-hearted to deeply moving (and sometimes even a little scary).

NPR Books Podcast
If you want to learn about literature and literary topics, rather than listen to stories, this is the perfect podcast for you. Delving into issues like the future of libraries, or whether to assign nonfiction stories to high school students, the Books Podcast mixes news with anecdotes to create a really wonderful educational experience. Interviews are kept rather short, and the average episode clocks in at a half hour or less—just the right amount of time for my morning commute.

Selected Shorts
Thanks to the ever-rotating selection of authors, I’ve listened to a dozen of these podcasts and never once felt bored. Each episode centers around a theme (like “The Lives of Objects” or “Magical Thinking”) and features several short stories that are connected by the common thread. Read by actors in the Getty Center in Los Angeles, every story is masterfully narrated and skillfully chosen, resulting in a hour long exploration of the human experience (and its literary mirrors).

Barnes & Noble Meet the Writers
These short interviews offer an interesting glimpse into the inner worlds of some of my favorite contemporary writers, including Sarah Vowell and Kathryn Stockett. Though it may sound cheesy, I really do feel as though I’ve “met” the writers; on the whole, they tend to speak openly and plainly about their craft. As a writer, I find these particularly inspiring. It’s nice to remember that my literary idols are actually people. People who forget words and laugh awkwardly and search for the right way to phrase their sentences. It is at once both inspiring and charming.

There you have it: An inside look at what crowds my hard drive and keeps me going on long drives and boring days. Since I’m always looking for new material, what’s your favorite thing to listen to?

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  1. Hi.
    I really enjoyed your work on the Five Great Literary Podcasts.

    I like listening to Idyllic music and Kenneth Branagh’s performance of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad.

    I also love Sarah Vowell.
    Thanks for sharing 🙂