Five Favorite: Narrative Nonfiction Podcasts

I basically only listen to podcasts, and long-form nonfiction are some of my favorites. (Yet I don’t listen to audiobooks? 🤔) Below are four of my absolute favorites, and one* I can’t wait to start!

The Dream: Host Jane Marie dives into the world of pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing, and all the other businesses that require their members to recruit their nearest and dearest in hopes of a commission. Join her as she traces the path of get-rich schemes, from her roots in rural Michigan all the way to the White House.

Monster*: This true crime podcast tells the story of one of the city’s darkest secrets, the Atlanta Child Murders, nearly 40 years later. Host Payne Lindsey aims to find truth and provide closure, reexamining the disappearance and murder of over 25 African American children and young adults. Season two focuses on the Zodiac killer.

Serial: Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial tells one story — a true story — over the course of a season. Season one focuses on the murder of Hae Min Lee, season two on political prisoner Bowe Bergdahl, and season three on the justice system of Cleveland, OH.

Slow Burn: Even recent history is rich with surprising subplots, strange details, and forgotten characters. On Slow Burn, Leon Neyfakh excavates recent political history and finds surprising parallels to the present. Season one focuses on Watergate and season two on Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

Standoff: In 1992, hundreds of armed federal agents surrounded a family of white separatists in a ramshackle mountaintop cabin. Eleven days later, three people were dead—and the story of Ruby Ridge was just beginning. Journalist Ruth Graham explores a tragedy that’s become a foundational myth for the modern right, and finds some frightening lessons about power and paranoia. 

Do you have your own favorite narrative nonfiction podcasts? Let me know! To see previous topics, click here.

Top Ten: Required Reading I’d Change

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme was a back-to-school freebie. Since my school was super white, the books I read were capital-C Classics. Below are eight titles I was assigned while in high school, matched with titles I wished I’d been assigned instead.

Bittersweet rather than The Great Gatsby: The Great Gatsby has its fans; I am not only of them. The ONLY thing I like about it is the fan theory that Jack Dawson survived the Titanic and made a new life for himself as Jay Gatsby. (No, seriously.) Not only is Bittersweet written by a woman, its two protagonists are women as well. Also, the tagline is “Suspenseful and cinematic, Bittersweet exposes the gothic underbelly of an idyllic world of privilege and an outsider’s hunger to belong” – which I find way more interesting than “It’s the Roaring Twenties, and New York City is the place to be. Everything can be purchased, everyone can be bought. But, can you make money erase your past?”

The Fever rather than The Crucible: Ugh. WHY was The Crucible required reading? To get the full effect, plays need to be performed; but, y’all, this play is so boring that I was still almost put to sleep while watching it live. (On Broadway! With Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw!) If I wanted to learn about the Salem Witch Trials, I’d rather read something like The Witches: Salem, 1692 instead of a sixty-year-old play that’s usurped actual fact. Do you want to teach mass hysteria brought on by an unexplainable illness that exposes a small town’s secrets? The Fever has all The Crucible’s juicy bits AND it was published within the last five years. Win-win.

Friday Night Lights rather than The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck’s novels don’t do it for me anymore, and however many problems surround the writing of The Grapes of Wrath, it’s a novel of its time. But it’s not that relevant now. Instead of a migrant farm family trekking across the country in search of work during The Great Depression, why don’t we talk about racially-mixed small towns in the middle of economic recessions now? About how, for some families, their only chance at “making it” rests on their son nabbing a sports scholarship? And what happens when that dream fails? That’s what I want to read about.

A Game of Thrones rather than King Lear: Things I remember about King Lear: there are three daughters, two of whom are awful, one of whom is not. There are Life Lessons ™ from the comic relief. Lear goes blind in this metaphorically masterful scene. Honestly, I am not at all surprised that some people are put off by reading when forced to consume a 400-year-old play about a feuding family written in archaic English. In order for literature to be fun you have to teach fun literatureA Game of Thrones is fantasy, yes, but it also dips into history and politics and social customs and OH YEAH THERE ARE DRAGONS.

Monster rather than To Kill a Mockingbird: I’m honestly just tired of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’d rather read more about Tom from his own perspective than how ‘woke’ Scout gets because of his Noble Suffering (or ~whatever Lee calls it). Monster tackles race, culture, and the criminal justice system through the eyes of a black teen on trial for murder: it’s his story in his words.

Speak rather than The Scarlet Letter: There is so much else going on in The Scarlet Letter that its real star, Hester, is completely overshadowed by the completely over-dramatic Dimmesdale. I also don’t think an out-of-wedlock love affair between two consenting adults is all that interesting anymore. But Speak tactfully handles social stigmatization and sexual assault in high school – things real high schoolers might unfortunately encounter.

The Underground Railroad rather than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: I understand why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still taught in school, but there are so many novels that have been written in the last century in a half that focus on runaway slaves which give their black characters top billing or aren’t written by a white male. The Underground Railroad is both.

World War Z rather than The Plague: There’s more to The Plague than just, well, a plague. It’s a classic example of existentialist allegory on death. (Cool.) It’s also hypothetical. You know what can also serve as a “study of human life and its meaning in the face of a deadly virus”? World War Z. Except the book’s written as an oral history (which could be explored in its own right) and, oh, I don’t know, there are ZOMBIES. Way cooler than the Bubonic Plague.