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Arts in Review

Stories of ordinary life made extraordinary on The Memory Palace



Growing up, I knew that a road trip with the family meant books on tape. One of mom’s choice, one of dad’s, rarely one of mine. Never one of my younger sister’s choosing. We were to sit passively and listen along to the story threading in and out of the speakers, a word picked up here and there breaking through the plotline of the book I was reading in the sweaty back seat of the Astro van we owned.

I don’t remember one of the titles of the books we listened to on those numerous hours spent on the road, but what I recall clearly was the timbre of the voices reading the books. That smooth, even, male voice, enunciating and tasting each word as it was passed through the microphone, out of the crackly speakers and into my now treasured memories, creating a soundtrack to those adventures.

When I stumbled across The Memory Palace, a podcast on iTunes hosted by public radio host Nate DiMeo, that soothing voice filled my speakers and created that nostalgic sensation of contentedness. I was instantly transported once again to the backseat of that Astro van.

DiMeo weaves non-fiction tales focusing on everyday life from the past, “sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hysterical, often a little bit of both,” the podcast description reads. The podcast has 125 episodes as of April 25. The latest installment telling the story of Indian cobras showing up in a small town, and how a garden hoe saved the day.

Since 2008, this podcast has seen a decade’s worth of stories hit the airwaves, each episode with the power to captivate audiences and transport them to a different time and place. The podcast was named a 2016 finalist for the Peabody Award, the Pulitzer equivalent for electronic media.

Every installment discusses a subject that time may have forgotten. The topics include events that make up the lives of everyday people, nothing usually special, nothing usually noteworthy. Stories about a man who dubbed himself a colonel and gave a large block of cheese to one of the first presidents of the United States. Then, narratives branch out to cover people that history should remember, like Mary Mcleod Bethune, an African-American activist whose “life was too full to fit on a plaque.”

Each episode runs only 10 to 15 minutes in length. Except for one, in which DiMeo reads Walt Whitman’s A Song of Myself on the eve of the 2016 presidential elections. Listeners can choose to jump in anywhere, and lose themselves in the dreamlike quality of DiMeo’s voice, accompanied by faint background music that adds to each anecdote. There are 146 installments to choose from, accompanied with vague episode descriptions, encouraging the listener to enter into the experience created.

DiMeo’s ability to inform and evoke emotion is a special skill, especially within the short amount of time the podcast runs. If you’ve got a few minutes, check out The Memory Palace. It’s worth it.

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