A history of history

I gravitate toward history podcasts. Long ones. Over a decade ago I wanted something - for a Northward car trip - that wasn’t an audiobook, and I was delighted to find a series on Samuel de Champlain’s journeys in the very terrain I was traveling. I downloaded all I could find and synced it to my iPod Shuffle. It kept my brain busy on the uninteresting stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Closer to the present day, in 2018, I determined to finish backpacking Vermont’s Long Trail, but in apostate fashion: with headphones in, for fear of a strain of boredom I’d acquired since the dawn of the digital age. I saw that Jamie Jeffers’ British History Podcast was long-ish-lived and popular, and I decided to start at the beginning while I trod up and over the Green Mountains.

The notion that this art[?] form could extend over dozens or hundreds of episodes did not quite register with me at the time. Sort of like how distances in light-years are theoretical, graspable in an academic sense but not a viceral one. Surely no human could listen to all of that knowledge, much less create it? The surprise was that it was possible to listen to it all. I went from prehistoric megafauna to Boudica in the course of my first two days on the trail, and I was hooked.

Jeffers posted his first episode in 2011. He was at 290 episodes by the time I began listening, and it didn’t take me long to catch up. When I reached “real time” with the BHP, I had a sensation of a racecar driver who’s just deployed a drag chute: abrupt, almost painful deceleration, my brain flung into the seat belt of the present. I had sometimes gone through five or six back catalog episodes in a day; now I waited weeks for a new one. I’ve continued listening avidly - Jeffers is at episode 442 as of this writing, and situated in the fallout from the Norman conquest - but I needed more.

Turbocharged with excessive running mileage by the downtime of the Covid pandemic, I sought more podcast titles, and this time I had an eye for longevity. I tore through Mike Duncan’s History of Rome (of Rome! Bare minimum 1000 years!), then joined and caught up with his Revolutions, and lamented when he - no doubt worn ragged by decades of narrating - went on a probably-permanent podcasting break. I unimaginatively-but-happily went next to David Crowther’s History of England, and am still not caught up to the latest episode despite a furious pace.

The multiverse of historiography

There are kaleidoscoping, interlocking timescales at work here:

  1. There’s the story being told, which - depending on the podcaster - may or may not have a bracketed beginning and end. In the case of Duncan’s episodes on the Haitian revolution, it’s a somewhat-frantic decade of a timeline, but Crowther’s tale of England spans millennia, and - despite the Tories’ best efforts - is still unfolding.
  2. There’s the period of time in which the podcaster works. 2011 to the present is a long time. And the release is not a single event like shipping a manuscript; it’s continuous.
  3. There’s the time in which the listener receives the story. Ten years of back catalog can be experienced in a fraction of that, or meted out even more slowly.

Time moves only forward, but there are still many ways for these three dimensions to intersect.

The lives of episodic historians

I often wonder how my favorite long-term podcasters experience their craft. They may choose an arbitrary starting point. They might elect a specific [authoritatively-recognized] end of their given historical events. But it might not be a target date that causes them to finally cease broadcasting. It could just as well be a changing day job, a family complication, or, indeed, the end of their own life. This is work that can more closely resemble the pre-Gutenberg ecclesiastical scribes, aware of their own mortality and striving to finish just one book before their time is up. The persistence required in both cases is remarkable, but the serial nature of podcasting makes it distinct from the work of book authorship in its current form. It may take years to write, but rare is the book that shows up, chapter by chapter, in an alt-weekly or a blog.

I’m also aware of how much effort must be required to keep a podcasting project focused on the past. As timescale #2 is unfolding, history is still very active, one might say distractingly so. As right-wing militas clashed with leftist demonstrators in Portland, as an attempted coup unfolded in Washington, Jeffers and Duncan in particular were loud on Twitter; it has never been difficult to find either of their political stances in the public sphere. But their podcasts - diligently recorded throughout - betrayed very little of the present moment.

Despite regular commentary from online numbskulls (variations on “stick to the history, nerd”), the long-running podcasts I listen to only rarely mention any present events, even if the contextual setup is just dangling there, waiting to be used (European history in particular is distressingly full of Trumps and Putins). Perhaps that’s because of timescale 3 above; podcasters in this form are probably aware that their audience includes listeners from years or decades in the future. I am occasionally reminded by an errant event announcement (“I hope to see you at one of my book signings in early 2015!”) - that I myself am a visitor from the future.

The podcast as a form is reminicent of some of The Old Ways™. Up to a point, it can be composed and presented in the same way as any of Dickens’ novels (I’m looking at you, Sarah Koenig). Or each episode can serve as a single lecture in a semester - or year, or complete graduate program - of one field of study. But these similarities of kind are bowled over by the vastness of degree among the long-running history podcasts that compel me. The authors have spent, in some cases, half their lives on their feeds. And I suspect that by the time I exit this mortal coil I will have spent half my life listening.