15 Favorite Episodes as the Book Review Podcast Turns 15


This was a near impossible task. Actually, it was an impossible task, as I assigned myself a top 10 list but was unable to stick to it. Instead, going through the eight years of weekly episodes in which I’ve hosted the Book Review’s podcast (my predecessor, Sam Tanenhaus, was the founding host), I came up with what I thought was a strict culling of favorites. That initial list was 35 episodes long.

What made these episodes my favorites had nothing to do with me and everything to do with my guests. The Book Review podcast has been lucky to host some of the biggest names in literature, from Toni Morrison to John Updike to John Grisham to Colson Whitehead, and in nonfiction, writers ranging from Michael Lewis to Calvin Trillin to Isabel Wilkerson. I’ve spoken to public figures like Henry Kissinger, Samantha Power, Preet Bharara and Elizabeth Warren. Plus all of my colleagues, not just at the Book Review but from throughout The Times, including Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Wesley Morris and Frank Bruni, Thomas Friedman and James B. Stewart. These are all people who enlightened and entertained and informed me. All these guests tolerated my nosiest questions and often surprised me with their answers. They made me a better reader and a better listener. Herewith, in no particular order, 15 of my personal favorites.

April 19, 2019

It was an honor to have Robert Caro visit the newsroom and come into the studio, and I couldn’t help but take up the entire episode with our conversation. Caro had just written his short memoir, “Working,” and we talked about that. But having recently finished reading “Master of the Senate,” I had to ask him a number of questions about that book specifically and about Lyndon Johnson more generally. Naturally, we had to talk about Robert Moses as well. An unforgettable experience for me.

Stephen Fry knows everything about everything, and it was a joy to talk to him about Greek mythology, especially since one of my children is a big fan of his new volumes retelling the myths. On a personal note, I was eager to talk to him about Oscar Wilde, whom he memorably played in the 1998 biopic “Wilde.” We ended up having a wide-ranging conversation about Fry’s approach to books and art. In this episode’s other segment, which was taped shortly after the killing of George Floyd, I spoke with two of my colleagues on the Books desk, Andrew LaVallee, the deputy editor for news and features on the Books desk, and Lauren Christensen, a preview editor at the Book Review, about books that deal with the subjects of race and racism. Books are such a great way to lend context and perspective to issues in the news, and I appreciate having colleagues whose breadth of reading makes a conversation like this rich with ideas for further reading.

March 6, 2020

This was the second time James McBride appeared on the podcast, both times in studio, and this was the last in-studio recording we did before The Times shut down for quarantine. I would say that’s what makes it extra special (I miss those in-person conversations), but the truth is, what made it special is McBride himself, who is always a thoughtful and energetic presence. Music is central to his writing (he is also a musician), and I was glad we were able to incorporate some music clips into the show.

Oct. 12, 2018

Michael Lewis is another repeat guest, and this visit was especially good because the subject of his book “The Fifth Risk,” which looked at various underreported departments in the federal government, was surprisingly fascinating. I was also thrilled to interview Tana French on the publication of her first stand-alone novel, “The Witch Elm,” which I’d recently finished after reading “The Trespasser,” part of her Dublin Murder Squad series. I was a newly converted fan, and our conversation did not disappoint.

Nov. 15, 2019

It’s always a pleasure to have three-time guest David Sedaris on the podcast. On two of those occasions, conversation with him took up the entirety of the episode, but on this one, I also got to talk to Christopher Knowlton, the author of “Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West,” a subject I knew little about and found especially fascinating.

March 1, 2019

This episode was unusual, in that all of the guests were current or former reporters for The Times. You would think I’d have known the full story behind my colleagues Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s Harvey Weinstein reporting by that point, but I still learned more in this interview about their book, “She Said.” Also, though I’d known Jodi for years, before either of us were at The Times, the podcast was the first time I’d had a chance to talk to Megan. This was also the first time I’d ever spoken to Ian Urbina, my other guest on this episode; the reporting he did for “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier” was remarkable.

March 15, 2019

Some episodes are just a lot of fun, and this was one of them. I’ve long been a fan of the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. I’d seen him perform cabaret and always admired his creativity and sense of humor and versatility. I spoke to him about his memoir, “I.M.” I was also eager to talk to David McCraw about “Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts.” McCraw is the lead counsel for the newsroom at The Times, so someone I generally only encounter on emails about tricky and/or unpleasant topics. But anyone who works at The Times knows that McCraw is a former journalist himself and a fierce defender of the profession in general, and the conversation was as illuminating as I expected it would be.

June 3, 2016

There are few tougher topics than this, at least to my mind. Sue Klebold was the mother of Dylan, one of the two teenage shooters at Columbine in 1999. It took Klebold 15 years to write her memoir. Honestly, I was a bit nervous to talk to her, to be sensitive to her as well as to the victims of that shooting. But talking about really difficult subjects and trying to make sense of them is ultimately what journalists should do, and so I tried to do it as best I could here. I also spoke to Matthew Desmond on this episode; his book “Evicted” had gotten tremendous critical attention already, but at that early stage had yet to make the full impact on the conversation around poverty that it eventually would. This episode was from an earlier iteration of the podcast — longtime listeners will note the different intro music, the best-seller news segment and the lack of a What We’re Reading segment, which came later.

Aug. 9, 2019



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