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What should a Book Podcast sound like?

How about something you listen to *before* picking up the book?

Imagine this: You’re reading a book that uses quite a bit of slang and often alludes to pop culture, and you don’t understand a lot of it. You might get hung up on this, had you not listened to a companion podcast for the book, which dedicated an episode to each chapter and ran through any jargon and insider references you were about to hear.

This podcast doesn’t exist, at least not to my knowledge. I started to fantasize about the concept when I saw a tweet from someone named Sammy, whose father was reading a novel and had stopped 21 times, by his recollection, to look up unfamiliar phrases within the writing. Not even a week later, my own dad was reading a book, this one non-fiction, and he, too, kept stopping and looking up words. Neither pops was likely the intended reader for either of these books — Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and Phoebe Robinson’s Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, respectively — but here they were, reading them. And they were having trouble.

In both of these books, like in many books, there are phrases that aren’t necessarily crucial to making sense of a scene or essay; they get tossed in for color, like a reality-TV reference that makes a character’s response feel more believable. The authors of the aforementioned books don’t always expand on these phrases, presumably because a lot of them aren’t essential. An uninitiated reader, though, might still pause and try to figure out what they mean, in case they’re important for their understanding of the text — which, sometimes, they are — making for a pretty choppy reading experience. (Also, it’s worth asking: If they’re so unessential that they don’t warrant defining, why are they all over the place?)

There had to be a more streamlined way to unpack these potential roadblocks, I thought, and a before-you-read podcast seemed like a good fit. It could hypothetically prevent all the stop-and-go jerkiness by clearing things up before they arise, and there were three reasons why I felt that audio would be the right format: 1) Technically anyone could make a resource like this, so it felt logistically possible, 2) a non-written resource could complement a written one nicely, and 3) I write about audio. I’m biased.

The closest thing I could find to this was The Bible Recap, a daily podcast that provides a quick dissection of a specific part of that religious text. Perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise that if a granular, comprehension-based podcast were to exist, it would accompany a religious text, since interpretation of such texts has historically been both embraced and disputed, precisely because it is believed to be the key to unlocking significant revelations in people’s lives.

Here, The Bible Recap aligns with a 365-day reading schedule, and the listener is expected to have looked over the corresponding psalms before host Tara-Leigh Cobble explains them. The episode from May 14, for example, breaks down what the Bible means when it says that God “covers” people when they sin: It’s like how a friend spots you at a restaurant if you forget your wallet, “except God’s covering is for more than just a steak dinner.”

A close second is Kurt Vonneguys, a book-by-book exploration of Vonnegut’s collection, hosted by Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim. Largely a series of winding conversations about the author’s choices and various readers’ reactions to them, the show operated for about a year and a half and occasionally integrated input from listeners, many of whom, Schmidt says, were existing fans of Vonnegut. The impetus for starting the show was that he and Swaim were fans, too, and wanted a space to talk about his work. This is reflected in the episodes’ long length, joke-filled discussions, and tendency to be less educational than digressive (“digressive” being a descriptor the hosts themselves embrace for the show). For example, the story Cat’s Cradle, rather than being likened to something that someone who’s new to the books might recognize, is described as “so Vonnegut-y,” “like main-lining Kurt Vonnegut crack.”

In writing this piece, I wasn’t finding anything quite like what I was looking for (and, readers, let me know if there’s something I’m missing). Neither show is meant to be listened to before reading their respective books, like I was imagining, and Schmidt and Swaim, unlike Cobble, didn’t even expect listeners to read along as they progressed through the episodes. Both of the aforementioned shows did have some neat features that brought them close to aligning with my vision, though: The Bible Recap splits its text into episodes, mirroring the easy-to-navigate format I pictured, and though Kurt Vonneguys tackled entire books in one go and didn’t really exist to clarify references or define words — at least beyond the phrases the pair highlights in the segment “Vocab Quiz!” purely because they sound cool — it did come with time stamps to help listeners navigate through the things the hosts did talk about.

Both The Bible Recap and Kurt Vonneguys, though, are ultimately pretty open ended. Both drift into abstract concepts and tangents. They’re human. This is more so true with Kurt Vonneguys, because things change shape in real time when there’s more than one host, but even the latter takes on big questions and loosey-goosey analogies. (Remember the steak?)

These shows are more or less audio book clubs, which, in practice, are pretty open ended, too. Sure, you might show up to a book-club meeting and be like, “Okay, I did NOT get what was going on in that chapter,” and your fellow readers are how you gain clarity and meaning, but “meaning,” even in that example, can stretch beyond a basic definition. A real-life book club could hypothetically provide the meaning of a word @mazel_toph’s father didn’t understand (say, “U-Haul,” which, when used as a verb, refers to a stereotype of queer women living together early in a relationship) but what a book club could also do is unpack the meaning of that stereotype, providing a place and time to examine if the trope has any legs, what it says about queerness, why it’s used, who wields power when they use it, etc.

What’s more, this interpretive human element, which might attract people to book clubs in the first place, is also what leads many people to podcasts, says Isaac Lee, a producer and sound designer for The Ringer. Perhaps that’s why the podcasts that do approximate what I was imagining feel more like discussing a book over drinks and less like reading dry CliffsNotes. I do still think that having concrete answers and definitions in one place would be helpful (plus, if an author isn’t giving those out, what’s stopping fans and readers from packing them into bite-sized recordings?) but Lee was resistant to the format I was imagining for audio, and I wanted to hear him out.

Lee has produced The Ringer’s Binge Mode since 2017, for which hosts Jason Concepcion (now at Crooked Media) and Mallory Rubin have dissected such things as Game of Thrones and Marvel movies. Lee and I specifically talked aboutBinge Mode’s Harry Potter iteration, which covered books, but the show didn’t just “cover” them — it kind of blasted them open, because, as Lee says, there are “ethical and sentimental and entertaining lessons to be learned from Harry Potter.” Focusing on these kinds of abstract takeaways gave listeners something to chew on long term, which is presumably why people who wanted to deepen their reading of Harry Potter came to the show, not a Wikipedia page. And having the discussions be led by Concepcion and Rubin, who brought their personal connections and senses of humor to the conversation, kept listeners engaged moment to moment, which Lee says is particularly crucial when working with audio, since you can’t use visuals to keep people’s attention. Using a podcast to list definitions, he says, just wouldn’t work.

“If you’re just presenting information, there’s no relatability,” says Lee, whose impression is that presenting information is instead best done with the written word, where you don’t risk people zoning out because their eyes aren’t occupied. Examples of this are the variousarticles that run through the references Anna Wiener makes in her book Uncanny Valley; when you read those pieces, you get only their information, and the articles’ authors take a backseat.

Another reason Lee doesn’t think podcasts are the right place for this kind of surface-level comprehension, he says, is because audio is complicated to make. “It takes a lot of effort to make a podcast,” he says. “I wish that the medium was utilized more correctly than something that, in my opinion, sounds pretty cheap, that you could just make as a list or a glossary.”

For what it’s worth, Schmidt, of Kurt Vonneguys, mostly agreed: Written pieces are “useful resources for that kind of thing,” he said. But when I described my vision of audio as a tool for comprehending books, he seemed to change his mind. “I love that as a thing,” he said. “I think audio, and podcasting especially, where you can pick it up and put it down as a listener, is the perfect medium for that.”

I don’t think we have to pick just one reality. We could have shows like Binge Mode or Kurt Vonneguys, which take the “club” parts of a book club and really bring you in for a comprehensive, insider conversation about a story’s events and implications. And we can have shows like I’m imagining, too. After all, while I used those exact articles that I linked above while reading Uncanny Valley, the information came too late and was very unhelpfully pooled together, rather than being sectioned out by chapters. I would’ve loved for it to have been more readily available while I read, perhaps in the form of a podcast.

At the end of the day, of course, even if these types of shows do emerge, I acknowledge an outstanding problem: It’ll be a challenge to identify exactly which references and phrases need defining. Everybody comes to writing from a different place, and what’s clear to one person might mean nothing to another.

While writing this article, my mom texted me about a gift I’d gotten her that was en route, according to a shipping notification. “T.I.A” she wrote. I had to look it up. (It means “thanks in advance.”) Silly, sure, and maybe something I should’ve known, but I didn’t — and what podcast could’ve prepared me for that?