For the past 8 years, John Mitchinson and Andy Miller have read and discussed books on Backlisted, the podcast they host that “gives new life to old books.”
And now the duo, along with producer Nicky Birch, are approaching the podcast’s 200th episode later this month. When smartphones have no shortage of bad news to deliver, Backlisted’s episodes about ready-to-be-rediscovered titles can feel like a balm to readers and devoted listeners.
“If you enjoy reading, you’ll probably want to hang out with the people we like talking to because the common interest is, fundamentally, shared enthusiasm,” says Miller, an author of several books who cohosts the twice-monthly show with Mitchinson, who is the co-founder of Unbound, the crowdfunded publishing house that originally bankrolled the podcast. “So if you want to hear people who love reading talking about reading in a way they hope communicates that love of reading, join us.”
Miller, who does deep reading and research to prepare for episodes, recalls how he and Mitchinson miscalculated what the gig would entail. “It won’t be that much work because, you know, me and Johnny are both pretty well-read,” he remembers thinking. “How hard can it be?”
“We’ll have read them all,” Mitchinson chimes in, mocking their initial naivete.
“Very foolish,” Miller laughs, shaking his head in mock shame. “Hubris, in fact! Eight years of paying for that hubris.”
The opening pages
When we meet up across an ocean and several time zones on Zoom, it’s a lovely Southern California morning here and a dark, chilly Sunday evening in the U.K. where each resides. Mitchinson, who has an impressive beard, a love for English village life and a warm, reassuring manner, is nursing a cold after hosting an Unbound event at the London Literature Festival for its bestseller, “42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams,” that featured appearances by Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry, Caitlin Moran and others.
Despite this, he and Miller, whose books include the memoir “The Year of Reading Dangerously,” repeatedly postpone their dinners to discuss the show for two hours without complaint or lack of enthusiasm. If you’re a fan of the show, which I am, it was a delight.
The podcast, they tell me, had been Mitchinson’s idea. With experience in bookselling, publishing, and television, he understood that the industry focused all its time, energy and money on the latest thing.
So he pitched Miller the idea of doing the opposite.
“I’d been carrying around this idea, ‘Why is it that all the books podcasts are about new books?’” says Mitchinson, who approached Miller, a former bookseller himself, after seeing him do a performance based on “The Year of Reading Dangerously.’
After “several significant lunches,” jokes Miller, they had a plan. A very simple plan.
“I can remember us saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to clutter it up too much. We don’t need a massively sophisticated idea,’” recalls Miller. “Is it just old books?”
Reader, it was just old books.
“One of the delightful surprises of making the show for all this time is that the concept didn’t need to be any higher than that,” says Miller.
“Our listeners are often people who just want to feel there are others out there in the world who feel as passionate as they do about what you can get out of reading,” says Miller. “It’s finding new good stuff to read. It’s really not a high concept.”
If you’re a reader and haven’t listened to the podcast yet, well, you’re fortunate to have nearly 200 episodes ahead of you. The show is made for book lovers by book lovers, and so it has pretty much everything one would want in it: intelligence, humor, and lots of book recommendations. As well, they advocate on behalf of books that may be challenging or require greater effort to get into.
“We’re both believers that actually most books — nearly all books — have something to recommend them. The idea that ‘Life is too short for bad books’? Hey, guess what? There are no bad books,” says Miller. “‘The book didn’t grab me, quote-unquote?’ Well, no, that’s not the book’s job. It’s your job to grab the book. You’ve got it the wrong way around. You will get out what you put in.”
The spark generated by the two hosts was immediately apparent — the first episode in November 2015 was intended as a test run, but the discussion of J.L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country” went so well they ended up releasing it.
“It wouldn’t work if John and I didn’t have a rapport, and that rapport is just one of those very lucky things. If we’d recorded those 45 minutes and stumbled over one another and not found one another either insightful or amusing, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today,” says Miller. “We feel very lucky.”
“We had a clear idea of the kind of books we wanted to talk about,” agrees Mitchinson. “We tried it and it worked, so we kept doing it. We hadn’t researched or focus-grouped what would work.”
“In a sense, we began with the perfect one and we’ve been trying to work our way back ever since,” says Miller.
That philosophy extends to the sister podcast Locklisted, which is a twice-monthly podcast for contributors to the show’s Patreon that they launched during the pandemic. Along with producer Birch, who both Miller and Mitchinson praise as the integral third member of the endeavor, they discuss not only books but music, movies, TV and more.
“I love books, but I don’t just love books,” says Miller. “I love music and it’s such a buzz for me to talk to people and share with them this latest record I found or TV thing I’ve found.”
“For me, Locklisted is always fun … we’re narrowcasting with Locklisted to quite a small, enthusiastic group of people,” says Mitchinson. “The truth is that, when we’re doing our job well, we’re pursuing our own interests. That’s what people want us to do. They want us to find stuff that we like.”
New Backlisted listeners might be shocked to find that the hosts aren’t arguing about the merits of the books or the other’s opinions. They aren’t arguing at all. They listen to each other and their guests and respond with insightful, intelligent comments.
“One of the things I’m most proud of with Backlisted is that we manage to be funny, I hope, and bring out the humor in the discussions without dumbing down. John and I both have felt for many years, Why should serious discussion preclude enjoyment?” says Miller.
Backlisted has focused on lost classics, lesser-known works by well-known authors, out-of-print gems and occasionally, an idiosyncratic favorite (such as “Doctor Who and the Brain of Morbius” by Terrance Dicks, which was a terrific read when I tracked it down).
The authors they’ve discussed include the well-known — Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, Raymond Chandler — as well as those less familiar, such as Rosemary Tonks, Lore Segal, Elizabeth Jenkins and many more.
As well, the guests include authors, educators, publishers and podcasters, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan, Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka, musician Billy Bragg, librarian and author Nancy Pearl and Weston International Award winner Robert Mcfarlane among them.
The show has even influenced the publishing world, spurring Tonks’ works back into print as well as drumming up interest in books like “All the Devils Are Here” by David Seabrook and “Haunts of the Black Masseur” by Charles Sprawson (not to mention Miller’s enthusiasm for Anita Brookner, which has without a doubt raised the late writer’s profile and sales, and Mitchinson’s regular support for a range of nature writing).
But at the heart of it all, the podcast is an enjoyable hour with smart people having an informed conversation about books. And that takes work.
“I don’t think I can just turn up and pontificate on the subject of Kurt Vonnegut without having read more than one book by him. So it’s kind of a mixture of fear and conscientiousness. I don’t want to talk rubbish; I want to know what I’m talking about because if I know what I’m talking about, it will make a better show,” says Miller, who credits Birch’s editing ability for keeping the conversational flow tight.
“It’s sort of a paradox that at times you feel almost overprepared — you’ve read too much — and there’s so much you want to say and so much you want to get in there, but actually, you have to kind of hold back and let go,” Mitchinson says.
Miller says you can feel it when it’s a good episode.
“You know when something happens in the room,” says Miller, recalling the episode devoted to the novel “Riddley Walker” with Max Porter and Una McCormack. “I can remember looking at John and basically going, ‘This is fantastic.’ It wasn’t down to us. It was down to the book, the guests, a live audience on that occasion, all creating something really special in that moment and thinking, ‘Oh, wow, brilliant, and it’s being recorded.’”
“You can’t really force that. All you can do is turn up every couple of weeks and sometimes it just crackles and it happens,” says Miller.
As for the podcast’s milestone 200th episode, they’re working on it.
“How can you sum up 200 episodes of something that you’ve been doing for eight years? Well, we don’t know. But we’ll figure it out,” says Mitchinson, then adds with a smile. “Is it completely pinned down? No, it is not.”
“People say, ‘Hey… do you worry about running out?’” says Mitchinson, incredulous at the question. “Do we worry about running out of great works of literature? Uh, no.”
They’re both clear that they have no plans to stop any time soon. There’s still so much to read and discuss.
“If we stop enjoying it — when it becomes work — we just won’t do it. We’ll figure out something else to do,” says Mitchinson.
“But it hasn’t happened yet,” says Miller.