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Voices in my head (phones)

Do you listen to podcasts? What about audio books?

Me, I’m a relative latecomer to these worlds of wonder. Until about a year ago, I pretty much spent all my day with my head in a book, interacting directly with people, doing sport or sleeping. That was when, tired of having bikes stolen from my commuter station, I decided to start walking to work. Now, it’s impossible to walk and read in London (I’ve tried) so I decided to start listening to audio books.

I will confess, I’m a bit pernickety. Probably one audio book in five are actually acceptable to me. The wrong speaker, the wrong accent, poor diction, too slow, too quick – any of these things can make an audio book ‘not right’ and therefore, to my mind, not listenable to. But hey, one in five were excellent.

I started my search blindly, and by chance happened upon Heather Ordover’s Craftlit podcasts, which include readings of novels, contextual introductions and analysis. The episodes also include crafter tips on knitting, embroidery and goodness knows what else, but you are given clear directions on how to avoid those bits if you are only there for the book. Heather is a charming, engaging and thoughtful host, who always gives brilliant insights. And I was lucky enough to chance upon a wonderful reading of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, by Maia Daguerre whose voice really hit the spot for me (I’d advise everyone to go find it). Jane Austen is definitely one of those authors where you benefit from explanations and analysis, otherwise you could miss just how superb her writing was. You can find Craftlit’s website here - and it looks like Heather has set up a craft free subsidiary – Just The Books which you can find on your podcast player or at

Since then I have discovered excellent readings of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, along with a passable reading James Joyce’s The Dubliners and a simply awful reading of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall – such a shame! In fact, there was something very special about the Heart of Darkness. The reader was so measured, so beautifully cadenced, that I understood the book in ways I had not before – I struggled with it when I was younger and it took me nearly three months to get through 120 pages. If you’ve had a great audio book experience I’d love to hear about it.

As I was looking for fiction to engage me, I started searching more widely, and downloaded a podcast ap called Player FM. Oh what treasures I found. Firstly, it was Jacke Wilson’s The History of Literature podcast, a gentle amble through some of literature’s greatest moments (Hemingway, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, etc), some quirky fun episodes exploring a wide range of topics (great literary hoaxes, animals in literature, great sport novels, etc), and also an eye opener for me with some authors I know less well, like Alice Munro. Wilson is often in the company of his friend Mike Palindrome, and is an amiable host. Where I found him to be most beneficial was in talking to me about what I consider to be the harder authors, like Kafka, and explaining their genius. You can find out more at

So, when do I find the time? Well, I have two twenty minute walks and two thirty minute walks each weekday. I could use these just to have me time, for mindfulness, to free my brain up from constantly thinking. Sometimes I do. But not often. What I realised I liked about the audio books and podcasts was the education. Not having gone to university, I take especial pleasure in having my brain stretched, both by breadth and depth of learning. I found the perfect podcast for that when I found the similarly named, but quite different…

… Literature and History, hosted by Doug Metzger, a Ph.D. in Literature. Each episode is around 90 minutes – some longer, some shorter – packed full of historic context, introduction to the political and social environment, plot outlines, quotes, insight, analysis and humorous songs (you can skip the last bit if you want). The 38 episodes I have listened to so far have been consistently entertaining, informative, engaging and powerful. I have a strange feeling that when I get to the end of the episodes, I might start again at Episode 1. They are that good.

Hopefully that will be a while away though. Metzger does not hurry a subject. If it needs more than one episode, he takes more than one episode. Homer’s The Iliad takes five episodes. So far he has completed 58 episodes, and he has another 30 planned, which takes us up towards 1000 A.D. You can find Doug, and the podcasts, together with lots of bonus material at

Guys, we are fortunate enough to live in a time where education is all around us, on every possible subject, from Etruscan pottery to space travel, from the criminal psychology to learning languages – and much of it is free. I bet there is a little bit of your day you could fit a podcast or audiobook into – your commute, while ironing, to the gym or while cooking.

So jump out of that comfort zone and go stretch that brain - and if you find a good podcast, do let me know!

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