In this special holiday edition of Good Reads, E&M editor Sarah Gerwens retires the ‘summer reading’ list (the sun’s shining! turn off that screen, put down that book) and recommends some of her favourite podcasts instead.
Podcasts are popular. Intermittently isolated, stuck at home, and in need of some aural escape, like many others I found myself turning to my trusted audio companions more than ever the past year and a half.
I listened to podcasts while doing the dishes and going for walks. I listened to the morning news while eating breakfast, to meditation guides while falling asleep. I learned Spanish modal verbs while waiting in line for my COVID test. The voices, whispers, laughs, and laments of my favourite hosts accompanied me throughout the day.
Beyond popular, podcasts are practical. They allow for multitasking, unlike books or movies, that wholly absorb me. (Unlike books or movies, they are also largely free.) Listening, I can do something while doing nothing – or the dishes. I can take them along, no matter where I go. And often, my favourite hosts also take me along to whatever they do, narrate whatever they think and feel. Losing a baby. Planning a wedding. Protesting racism.
Listening is intimate. There is something soothing about the sound of the human voice, about being spoken to. Even if someone is reporting the news, you get to know the ups and downs of their voice, what they might laugh at and what they worry about. And, always there, always talking, it feels like podcasters might even get to know you, too. After all, you might have spent a whole global pandemic with them.
As such, podcasts are ripe for parasocial relationships; relationships that feel real and maybe even important to one party, while the other party has no idea of them. Of course, I know my favourite podcast hosts are not my friends. But, sometimes, they still feel like it. As long as they’re additions rather than replacements to one’s social circle, in a year of lockdowns, distancing, and isolation, a few more friends might not hurt.
This summer, while physical getaways are still only partially possibly (and often discouraged), aural ones are ubiquitous on the audio streaming service of your choice. I invite you to give a listen to the podcasts listed below: maybe you’re about to get some new aural, even if parasocial, friends.
This podcast by the American National Public Radio covers everything related to, well, life. It taught me about saving money and the planet. Less successfully, it also tried to reign in my smartphone screen time and care for my house plants. Episodes are led by a variety of hosts, with most around 15 to 20 minutes long. Bonus: their clear structure makes them easy to follow, so they are great for listening to while doing something else – for me, they’ve become my go-to podcast to put on while cooking.
Who’d enjoy it: you, probably (assuming you sometimes love, argue, sleep, eat, exercise, garden, grieve, or parent)
Another NPR gem, Invisibilia is beautifully narrated and crafted with meticulous attention to (auditory) detail. Every episode explores one facet of what it might mean to be human and the forces that shape us. It’s thought- and sometimes hopeful, intimate and intense. Some of my all-time favourite ‘sodes are ‘Raising Devendra’, pondering what happens if one treats AI with love, the way one might treat a child, and ‘The fifth vital sign’, which explores the meaning of pain – and its management.
Who’d enjoy it: story lovers, anyone on a long train ride, (hobby) philosophers, anthropologists of the everyday
Happiness science in half hour episodes with Yale University professor Dr Laurie Santos, who helps to make psychology research digestible and applicable. Especially during the early lockdown slump, she taught me about the power of a made-up ritual and how to deal with distractions.
Who’d enjoy it: the psychology-curious, the productivity-minded, the joy-searching
Comedians and internet personalities Zach Kornfeld, Kelsey Darragh, and Garrick Bernard talk about movies and TV shows that people love to hate – and decide if they are indeed ‘a pleasure, a guilty pleasure, or just plain guilty’. Often off-topic, always entertaining, this might make you laugh out loud when listening to it in the middle of the grocery store. Nice benefit: you get plot summaries of and opinions on popular movies that now you don’t have to see anymore unless you actually want to, from 50 Shades of Grey to Fast and Furious.
Who’d enjoy it: movie/TV lovers, movie/TV haters, those looking for rather unstructured content
The concept: host Alie Ward interviews experts, we get to listen (and, as a supporter of the show, to submit questions). There is something highly enjoyable about hearing people speak about what they know a lot and care deeply about; that might be ignorance, UFOs, penises, the apocalypse, beauty standards, or bees. Every episode is devoted to one expert and their topic of choice. Scroll through the archive to find what most aligns with your own interests or select a show randomly.
Who’d enjoy it: curious minds, never-stop-learning types,
The public gets things wrong, all the time. Journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall help us get it right. They revisit moral panics and public figures from the past to discover why what we remember is not what happened. While some episodes are rather American (pop) culture-focussed, start with the Stanford Prison experiment, Marie Antoinette, or the Princess Diana ones to enjoy the podcast’s conversational yet investigative tone.
Who’d enjoy it: pop culture sleuths, tabloid critics
Rose and Rosie – Parental Guidance, a lesbian comedy duo and their journey to parenthood.
Revisionist History, if you already know and like You’re wrong about
This American Life, legendary and long-running podcast that tells stories around a weekly theme, for Invisibilia listeners (and for everyone else, by now there are nearly 750 episodes to choose from)
These are supposed to be vacation-appropriate podcasts, so I left out the countless news-focussed shows out there, as well as some popular crime podcasts. If you have a podcast you can recommend (including those not in English!), feel free to leave a comment and spread the word about your personal favourites.