Some years ago, in a quest to lose weight, I took up running. Running, as many of you will know, is unbelievably boring - especially for those of us shaped less like runners and more like flat-footed sweet potatoes. I am also tone deaf, and like Horatio Hornblower, derive less pleasure than other people do from music. So my husband recommended The Great Courses by The Teaching Company; a treasure trove of lectures from US college professors.
There are hundreds of courses to choose from. The one I went for first was a History of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl (his courses are fantastic, by the way - particularly his Vikings one). Like a lot of people who studied history, my knowledge was patchy - good on the Julio-Claudians, hopeless post-Constantine. Good on the Renaissance, hopeless on the Enlightenment. Good on the Russian Revolution, sketchy on the French. You get the drift.
The Great Courses has acted as a sort of join-the-dots for my patchy knowledge of world history. The Harl lectures had another consequence - they brought me to writing historical fiction. I remember running through St James' Park, and listening to him talk about the Empress Theodora - the courtesan turned sixth-century Empress, and religious activist. I'd never heard of Theodora. I remember I stopped running, and sat on a park bench. Listening. People strolled by, pigeons fought over bread for the ducks, swans glided.
By the time the lecture finished, I had resolved to write Theodora's story. And reader, I did. OK, I did it badly, no one wanted to publish it, and then Stella Duffy did it better. But hey. My first novel, which I think of as akin to a Patronus Charm in Harry Potter - it helps to cast the spell, knowing already that you can achieve the spell.
In the fourteen years since, I've listened to loads of Great Courses. My absolute favourites are those by Garratt Fagan, an Irish born historian of Ancient Rome who taught in the US and died aged only 54 last year. This blog is a peculiar echo chamber, and perhaps its readers will understand the particular joy of walking somewhere beautiful, listening to a mellifluous and searingly insightful voice talking about the third century crisis in Imperial Rome.
In the old days, if you bought a Great Course, it came in a box set of CDs, with accompanying leaflets. We would burn them on to MP3 players. Now, I can download them onto my iPhone from my audible account (incidentally, this massively decreases the price of lots of the courses).
My husband, who is not tone deaf, is a huge fan of Professor Robert Greenberg's lectures on music, particularly his history of opera and his talks on Beethoven.
I don't run any more while listening to the courses. Partly because I really, really hate running. But also because I've been listening to a lot of philosophy, and you need to concentrate. Say you are running along, and Professor Lawrence Cahoone is talking you through Hegel's three stage dialectical interpretation of history, and you suddenly think: Oh look, a pigeon. And, bang, just like that you are lost in Hegel. To listen to these bad boys, you need easy access to the go-back-30-seconds button on your phone.
Here's the link: www.thegreatcourses.co.uk It's a treasure trove.