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When modern life gets tough, I take refuge in history podcasts

The astonishing medicinal powers of obscure facts, obsessive professors, and droning BBC historians.

By Glenn McDonald

A valuable lesson I’ve learned in adulthood is that I’m not really in charge of my brain. I like to think I’m in charge, and it’s often useful to pretend that I am. But I’m hardwired in certain matters. The brain wants what the brain wants.  

To wit: For reasons I don’t fully understand, I find deep and abiding comfort in the sound of history podcasts, especially when I need to unwind. I’d prefer more traditional modes of relaxing audio: cool jazz or ambient dub, maybe, something with a little hipster value. But no. My brain demands 40-minute presentations on Egypt’s Twelfth Dynasty, or Sanskrit manuscripts, or the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

I have dozens of history podcasts queued up in my iPhone, like a tray of sedatives. These productions often induce a psychological response similar to ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, that mysterious phenomenon in which some people experience a pleasant tingling sensation triggered by certain sounds. It’s a kind of auditory-tactile synesthesia, a surprisingly reliable digital-age tranquilizer.

I remember one British historian referring to World War I as “a spot of unpleasantness” and thinking: That’s a kind of genius, right there.

I listen to many history podcasts, but I find British historians most effective. I like the elevated discourse of a good dust-up between Oxford dons. British scholars always sound polite, even when they’re not trying to. And British idioms and euphemisms are simply glorious, especially when applied to cataclysmic world events: unflappability as philosophy. When I hear someone say knackered, chuffed, bits and bobs, or the delightfully versatile bloody, I get a sensation of warm pressure in the center of my forehead. I remember one historian referring to World War I as “a spot of unpleasantness” and thinking: That’s a kind of genius, right there.

For maximum nerd-out bliss, I turn to HistoryExtra, from the editors of Britain’s top history magazines. These are usually one-on-one interviews with historians plugging their new books. Topics range all over the map: Women fighters of the Jewish resistance! The Suez Canal! Facial hair through history!

HistoryExtra also runs occasional special series, like an in-depth examination of the Bayeux Tapestry or a running debate on Britain’s greatest prime minister. (This is a touchy subject among U.K. scholarly types.) The Everything You Wanted to Know About series offers world-class educators addressing big historical topics. Shakespeare! Ancient Babylon! The American Civil Rights movement! I’m getting tingly right now.

British television presenter Dan Snow is a celebrity historian — they have those in England — who heads up History Hit Network, a collection of TV shows, videos, and podcasts. In Histories of the Unexpected, two eccentric professors chase down one random concept through various historical eras. Poison! Leather! Teenagers! Futility! Bathtubs!

The grande dame of British history broadcasts, BBC History Hour — now available in podcast form — is the latest incarnation of radio programmes that go back nearly 100 years. Host Max Pearson is an old veteran with BBC World Service, and in my mind, his voice is the sound of the nation that endured the Blitz. The podcast draws from the BBC’s vast audio archives, so the topics he presents are modern but wonderfully diverse: The Burma protests of 1988! The history of the Volkswagen Beetle! The Cambridge spy ring!

Among North American historians, Malcolm Gladwell hosts a series called Revisionist History, which takes a wickedly contrarian approach to received wisdom. Libertarian-leaning Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast features insanely detailed episodes that are up to seven hours long. Listening to this one at bedtime can be fun — I once fell asleep in 1105 and woke up in 1453.

Maybe my favorite podcaster these days is amateur historian Julie McDowall, host of the nuclear-war-themed Atomic Hobo podcast and proprietor of the most comforting Scottish accent on planet Earth. I save McDowall for the really stressful days. This is ironic, since her podcast focuses on one of my enduring personal phobias. It often feels like McDowall and I are working together through our shared childhood trauma around the 1980s apocalypse that never was.

I realize that using historians as therapeutic tranquilizers is weird. But I suspect there’s a subtextual thing happening here. By insisting on a steady diet of history, my brain is simply trying to take care of me. Historians are good at providing perspective, and when it comes to my own anxieties, perspective is what I need. Take McDowall’s nuclear war podcast, for instance. I like to chew on this stuff now that we can safely look at Cold War madness from a temporal distance. Or Hardcore History’s various treatments of World War II, or Revisionist History’s careful, empathetic reassessments.

At a time full of catastrophes, tragedies, and panics, I like to hear about long-gone catastrophes, tragedies, and panics, then learn how we overcame them, how we survived. History podcasts suggest that there are larger forces at work in this world and that, generally speaking, we are making advances, however slowly and painfully. The 21st century may be stressful, but it still beats the 13th century.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for National Geographic, NPR, Discovery News, The History Channel, Thrillist, Goodreads, and McClatchy newspapers.


Illustration by Francesco Zorzi


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