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Friday, April 7, 2017

Lots of "After you finish S-Town” Suggestions

I was on a family vacation when the new podcast S-Town premiered and I could not make an excuse to put in my headphones and ignore everyone.

However, the second we got home all bets were off. Like many of you, I had a serious problem, a S-Town obsession problem. I couldn’t stop listening. My family was making fun of me, walking around the house doing post-vacation chores, lost in the world of S-Town. I hadn't been this obsessed with listening to a story since I listened to Seveneves.

Let me back up a second for anyone who doesn’t know what I am talking about. S-Town is a brand new nonfiction podcast from the people who make This American Life and Serial and it is drawing in thousands of listeners. If you need the details, I am not going to repost them here, instead, you can click here for the first of Booklist Reader’s posts recapping the show. Click here for all of their posts about the podcast.

Back to me. Why was I so obsessed? Well, I had just returned form a vacation where I was in Alabama not very far from Woodstock, AL where the series takes place, but that was not all.  I liked it because although it was nonfiction, it unfolded like a novel. For example, because they worked on it for 3 years and then made the show, there are literary techniques like foreshadowing, used by Reed to great storytelling success.

This article in The Atlantic also gets as to why I was so hooked.

But I think in the end, I loved S-Town so much because its appeal is the same as all the stories I already love. And I chose the word “stories” on purpose because no matter the format, a good story is a good story.

Sometimes we get too caught up in matching formats, but you know what I have learned over the last few years observing popular reading trends? We, the library workers, are the only ones who separate everything by format and genre. We create these divisions and walls. Readers don’t care nearly as much as we think they do. Maybe we can use S-Town’s popularity to shake us out of our old ways.

So today, here are my suggestions for what to consume after S-Town. I have fiction, nonfiction, and TV. And, I had to force myself to stop or I would have been up all night adding more. Here goes.

One of the biggest appeals in the podcast is John, the eccentric subject of the show. On Booklist Reader, Karen Kleckner suggests After S-Town: 10 More Eccentric Characters.

There are also the obvious authors to mention, the ones John tells Brian Reed, the host, to read- Shirley JacksonFlannery O’Connor, and Guy de Maupassan.

If I had to put S-Town in a genre, I would classify it Southern Gothic. Yes, I know that is a classification for fiction and this podcast is 100% nonfiction, but remember when I said it is us library workers who are the ones creating the obstacles based on our “rules?” Here is an example. S-Town is more like a Southern Gothic novel than anything else. Full Stop. Get over it. Moving on.

I happen to love Southern Gothic. Of course the father of it all is Faulkner, but I have talked about newer examples of the genre many times on the blog. You can click here for all of those titles and authors but I would like to specifically point out Wiley Cash for the clicking averse among you.
S-Town also has the feel of a character driven, literary thriller. For that appeal, I would recommend The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt which while much, much longer than the podcast is also haunting and driven by an eccentric main character. For more about The Goldfinch including further readalikes along these lines, see my review.

There is a recent spate of nonfiction books about rural America, specifically white rural America, which Reed points out is exactly what he encounters in S-Town. Some suggestions: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg or Hillbilly Elegy: A  memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

And then there is the huge appeal of clocks. John is a master clock repairer, a horologist actually [someone who studies the science of time]. I immediately thought of two other titles which feature clocks prominently: Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. This led me to NoveList’s entry for Angelmaker where I clicked on the "clocks and watches" subject heading. This simple search revealed the Pulitzer Prize winning, Tinkers. I wasn't surprised that it had info about clocks, that the main character was a clock repairer I remembered, but I was surprised by what a perfect readalike it is. I never would have thought about it without that search.

Both S-Town and Tinkers are character driven, thought provoking, lyrical, reflective, and haunting. Both are also relatively short, in fact, Tinkers has a great audio version that clocks in at just under 5 hours [2 hours shorter than S-Town]. 

Which reminds me to mention that some readers may want to try any suggestions in audio to recreate some of the S-Town listening experience. In fact, I noticed as I was making suggestions from my own reading, I was drawn to titles I had listened to myself.

Now how about some watch-alikes. I immediately thought of Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series which follows the life of one complicated and eccentric man. The entire time I watched this series, I felt like it was more of a novel than a show.

Other shows that could work are:

  • The Knick which I have written about in detail here.
  • The first season of True Detective which is also has a Southern Gothic appeal
  • The Wire because it is the best. Oh, and it really feels like a novel about the city of Baltimore and the people who live in it, just like S-Town does for its town
  • Justified for its rich sense of place and complicated characters 

Okay, I am stopping now because making the list of suggestions is becoming obsessive.

I want to wrap this post up by acknowledging that there is some conflict in the library world if we should be recommending podcasts since they are free and available outside the library. Some argue, fairly, that if we provide help to patrons with identifying podcasts, yes they will be happy with our service, but we are doing ourselves a disservice since many library's base funding off of circulation statistics and this advisory work creates NO circulation of our materials.

However, I think doing work like I have done with this post promoting more similar storytelling experiences you can get AFTER finishing S-Town will generate lots of circulation of our wonderful collections. Promoting what we have to fill the hole in your lives after you finish S-Town [man I was feeling that earlier this week] is a service our patrons need today. 

This is also why you do not see any other podcasts on this list. I am focusing my work on what you can circulate at your library because this is work everyone can and should do. Also, this is work that libraries are uniquely suited to do, work Google can't replicate. An "If you liked S-Town" search brings up tons of podcast suggestions but very little else. We need to fill this gap.

I don’t want to be the final word on this topic, I want to be a small part of a huge conversation. So, please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments, or better yet, use this post as an inspiration to create your own lists and displays at your library.


Kaite Stover said...

I happily recommend podcasts, movies, longreads, books, whether my library owns them or not. When a patron asks me for a recommendation I'm not thinking about driving my circulation numbers, I'm thinking about my relationship with the patron. Strenthening trust and connection is more important to me than a circ figure. And if you think about it, friends and family already know where you work and use a library (if not yours) and I always tell strangers who ask for suggestions where I work so they get the library connection. I figure, if they know where I am (the library) then they'll be using it.

Becky said...

I totally agree with you Kaite but in my travels to more rural and small libraries I hear this criticism from Directors a lot! They are barley holding on in some places. They need every circulation boost they can get just to keep the funding they have.