For those not 63 and widowed, book clubs simply aren't a part of life. The journalistic impulse is to call them a tragically fading institution, but fabulous new media like our friend the podcast have, after a fashion, revived many pursuits that had fallen into disuse and disrepute. Those who bemoan the absence of book clubs need only subscribe to Slate's Audio Book Club [iTunes link], a monthlyish roundtable covering the old and the new, the fiction and the non, to know they're still a thing.
Three of five regular panelists (and a handful of one and two-timers) talk about each book. Stephen Metcalf, also known as the leader of the Slate Culture Gabfest pack, usually heads these conversations too. He frequently stands accused — once by this Podthinker — of capitulating to furrow-browed weenieism, but he's always excited about discussing whatever book's up. Even if thinking hard about them isn't always his first priority, he does a good job of acting as if it is. He knows you gotta bring the passion or stay away from the table. (Plus, he took the wind out of Eat, Pray, Love [MP3].)
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's literary editor and sometimes the podcast's host. According to Gawker, some people hate her. This Podthinker does not, although it is, admittedly, a little difficult to take her seriously when (a) one can't help but think back to this other Gawker post about her college "hookup" days every time she speaks and, more importantly, (b) she uses the word "admixture".
Katie Roiphe speaks well and holds herself, for the most part, in an I-can't-believe-she's-not-an academic way, except that the is an academic, a professor at NYU. She brings a valuable knowledge base and explanatory attitude to the table, which makes it all the weirder when she breaks into one of her fits of inexplicable petulance, the kind of enervated stonewalling one sees in writing workshop students who've been told their 750-page semiautobiographical magic realist novel about the pain of divorce doesn't work.
Troy Patterson's voice and manner make him a distinctive presence. He speaks clearly and concisely enough, but he does it with an icky, literary-lounge-lizard demeanor that sounds affected even if it isn't. Though he makes funny, sharp observations with some frequency, the first impluse after hearing him make them is to deplete one's stash of Q-Tips. Fortunately, the impulse fades with time.
Julia Turner is a hard person to write about. It's not as if she's The Woman Without Qualities, but none of her comments stick out as particularly memorable: she doesn't say much that's blindingly incisive, sure, but she doesn't say anything thuddingly stupid either. It might be appropriate to call her presence the neutral fluid through which her co-panelists' opinions float. That's not to call her non-judgmental, but even when she judges, it doesn't feel like she's judging.
So they've all got their quirks, then, but who doesn't? What matters is that they're all good at discussing books. The selections themselves are the show's next most important quality, and they don't typically disappoint. There's classic stuff listeners have almost certainly already read (All the King's Men [MP3], Brideshead Revisited [MP3]), new stuff that's big in The Literary ConversationTM (Netherland [MP3], Tree of Smoke [MP3]) and stuff tied into issues of the day (The Omnivore's Dilemma [MP3], The Audacity of Hope [MP3]). Yes, they lapse into moments of laugable insularity — as when they congratulate Joseph O'Neill on acknowledging even the non-Manhattan boroughs — but it's nonetheless fascinating every time to hear what Slate's Book Clubbers have to say.
Format: group book discussion
Running since: May 2006
Frequency: pretty solidly monthly, at this point
Archive available on iTunes: all
[By the way, podthinker Colin Marshall happens to be developing a marginally less reverent version of this format. Book enthusiasts can find out about that here or via e-mail at colinjmarshall at gmail. Suggest podcasts for Podthoughts here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]