Navigating the worst parts of the pandemic required patience. And hobbies. Lots of freakin’ hobbies.
Homebound, I looked for things to do to pass the time that didn’t involve going out into the world. That devolved quickly into what’d I tentatively call dad-core pastimes. I got super into grilling and smoking meat, and building things, and tinkering with any household item that seemed slightly broken. (Often I’d make the matter worse, but don’t mind that, that’s not the point.)
But even as I inched closer toward jorts, New Balance tennis shoes, and other fatherly things, I still possessed a millennial brain sickened by screens. So, doing one thing? That’s fine. But doing one thing while passively doing another? Oh baby, gimme that overstimulation.
Enter: Preposterously lengthy, somewhat dry, impressively informative history podcasts. The perfect thing to do while you do something else. A hobby stacked on top of a hobby.
And yes it was keeping with the Dad vibes, to get into history. I’m a parody at this point.
Funnily enough, this new love started with a work assignment. My editor asked me to round up some of the best history podcasts, which, of course, required a fair bit of research. Along the way, I found I actually really enjoyed learning about history. And podcasts seemed to be my ideal delivery method.
The two shows share some foundational DNA. Napoleon walks — crawls really — through Napoleon’s time, but spends countless hours weaving in important context, digressions, and overarching historical information. There’s a reason it’s called the age and not life of Napoleon. It’s a show about both how that historical era formed Napoleon and how Napoleon formed that historical era. It’s also impeccably researched and thorough.
Hardcore History, somehow, is even more detailed. It’s so exhaustive that Carlin puts out just a couple episodes a year. Although “episode” might be a misleading term. The latest, on Japan and World War II, came in at nearly six hours long. Oh, and it was just one installment in a six-part series called “Supernova in the East,” all telling the same story of Japan and World War II.
I have listened to the entire damn series. Seriously. I’ve listened to more than 25 hours — a literal day — on this series alone. And I’ve listen to multiple series from Carlin, on everything from World War I, to the fall of the Roman Republic, to Persia’s empire.
That, and the fact that you all call yourselves the “Hard Corps”.😂 brilliant!
— Dan Carlin (@HardcoreHistory) June 9, 2021
Napoleon and Hardcore have a similar style: The host weaves a narrative, relying both on historians and primary sources, while keeping the tone conversational. There’s room in the story for digressions and there’s an emphasis on telling history as it was and not how it’s been told.
Each host, respectively, also does a good job of attempting to explain why something happened instead of just telling you the historical fact. Napoleon’s rise makes much more sense when you have a firm grasp on the French Revolution. Or Imperial Japan’s wartime actions are easier to understand when the nation’s relationship with the emperor is fully explained.
Frankly, these shows aren’t super exciting. But they’re fascinating. For me, at least, I found I knew so little about actual history. The shows often make me audibly go hmm or think to myself, “wow, didn’t know that.” They’re just interesting enough to hold your attention but also just monotone enough to listen to while you’re doing a pile or dishes or fixing a squeaky door.
I love to run and I can’t even begin to estimate how many miles I logged hearing about Julius Caesar or Darius the Great, King of Kings. Hell, I repainted an entire porch mildly entranced hearing about Napoleon’s exploits as a young man in Corsica.
To some folks, these sorts of pods might be mildly boring. If you’re not growing more Dad-ish with each passing day like me, I’d understand shrugging your shoulders at these shows.
But like I mentioned before, I have a young person’s brain. I rarely listen to these shows doing nothing else. So where you see boring, I see the closest I can come to meditation. I am never more zen than when I’m out grilling, tongs in hand, chicken over charcoal, with some obscure story about the Western Front going in my headphones.
During the heights of the pandemic especially it was nice to be in this zonked state, even if it was zen via overstimulation. As the U.S. opens up and I can do more of my old activities, long as hell, informative history podcasts are now simply a part of my life.
This afternoon, for instance, after signing off from work, I have a small mountain of tasks to plow through, including packing for a trip to see family. Not exactly fun.
But hey, I have a new episode of Age of Napoleon, which promises to dig into his colonial policies and the death of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. Sure, that might not seem exciting to everyone. But it’ll make doing the laundry feel kind of fun. And, to me, that feels like a small miracle.