4 For Your Ears: Bookish Podcasts for the Summer

I recently began listening to podcasts to give my eyes some relief from screen and print. These podcasts represent a range of my regular listening—two are concerned with language itself, while the following two focus on book reviews and poetry readings, respectively. I’ve found them to be a great way to explore and revisit language, poems, and books. It’s my hope that you enjoy them as well!


The Allusionist—Helen Zaltzman. From swear tablets found in bogs around Bath (68, 2017) to how transfolk maneuver their words to match their experiences of gender (56, 2017), The Allusionist focuses on language in its funny, serious, creative, and everyday functions. There is an entire episode devoted to how apples get their names and another about polari (99), which was the argot that many gay men in England used to reveal and conceal identity simultaneously.

Zaltzman also includes additional material for each episode on the podcast’s website, https://www.theallusionist.org/. For the episode about polari, materials include a link to the Polari Bible, a link to Round the Horne (a polari-loving radio program that aired from the mid-to-late 1960s), gay language in the Philippines, and much more. Zaltzman might also be the funniest person around formally trained as a Medievalist.


A Way With Words—Martha & Grand Barrett. This podcasting duo composed of an author/journalist and lexicographer/linguist talk about family expressions, where words come from, current slang, and classic sayings. They’re like the teachers we all love the most—lively, engaging, thoughtful, and warm. More about the podcast can be found at: https://www.waywordradio.org/about/

In “Pie in the Sky” a 6 foot 8 listened shares his favorite pithy remarks to strangers’ comments about his height (2012). The same episode also covers why leg cramps are called charley horses, and where the phrase “pie in the sky” originated. “Had the Radish” (2019) centers on a phrase commonly used by a listener when fed up or worn out. The phrase came to the upstate New York listener from France by the way of Quebec. The French phrase je n’ai plus de radis—which translates to “I don’t even have a radish”—originally expressed poverty.


The New York Times Book Review Podcast—Various Hosts. Wide-ranging as The Times itself, the Book Review Podcast explores fiction and non-fiction alike with a variety of hosts guiding the program. Trends in the publishing world and literary criticisms are also common subjects. In the episode “The Angry Children Are Our Future,” an interview of Lydia Millet, author of A Children’s Bible—an allegorical novel about climate change and a family vacation—precedes a discussion of Barry Gewen’s The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World.

The background of what constitutes a children’s Bible and how Millet’s novel departs from typical conventions of a coming-of-age tale offers material for contemplation for readers and writers alike. More about the podcast, including the option to stream content, can be found at https://www.nytimes.com/column/book-review-podcast.


Poetry Unbound—Pádraig Ó Tuama. “I need to feel the air in my throat and vocal cords constrict to make the poem real,” says the podcaster himself before he reads the poem “1383” by Emily Dickinson. He reads it well and follows the reading with his interpretation of the poem—how the fire described in the poem is like the fire that keeps friendship alive across distance and time. It’s a topical episode from late March of 2020, following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Other episodes are topical as well, though in a more general way. The episode “A Poem to See What’s Overlooked” offers a reading of a poem by Lemn Sissay that addresses what becomes forgotten. It’s a poem that demands remembrance, according to Ó Tuama, of the flat beer and missing buttons alike. “Like” is the word Ó Tuama brings our attention to throughout its repetition in the poem and his experience coming out as a gay man. Attentive and thoughtful, this podcast rewards the ears and the mind. More about the podcast can be found at https://radiopublic.com/poetryunbound-69qD3w/s1!30fd6.


Guest post courtesy of Nick Mueller

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