NPR host, absorbs books for his quiz show

Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal readily admits that he uses what little free time he has to exercise. That’s why the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” picked up the phone to talk about reading in his bike clothes. Sagal, the author of “The Book of Vice,” and his popular radio quiz show comes to Tanglewood this Thursday at 8 p.m.

BOOKS: Do you read about running or biking?

SAGAL: I have, but most books about running or biking are really dull. I tried to read “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami, who I love, but couldn’t. That said, there are a couple good books. “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall is great because it’s not just about running, but also about Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico. The other book is perhaps the only really good book about running per se, a fairly obscure novel, “Once a Runner” by John L. Parker Jr. The last four chapters are each about a single lap in a four-lap race. It’s amazing he’s able to sustain that. Then of course there’s Jim Fixx’s “The Complete Book of Running.” I read it as a chubby unathletic teenager, started running and lost weight.


BOOKS: What do you spend most of your time reading?

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SAGAL: Frustratingly I spend all day staring at the computer, reading blogs and news stories for my show. A lot of our guests write books so I need to read those, too. I have friends writing books that I want to read, like “Wrestling with Gravy” by Jonathan Reynolds, a New York Time’s food critic, but I really don’t have time for pleasure reading.

BOOKS: When did that start?

SAGAL: When I started doing the show 15 years ago. I have to absorb all this information and spit it out in an amusing way at the end of each week. I am this bizarre information digestion system. Guess which end I am?

BOOKS: What have you read for your show that you’d recommend?


SAGAL: When we get a celebrity it’s often because they are pushing a book. This means I’ve had to read a lot of bad memoirs. I won’t mention any of those but rather two terrific books. Craig Ferguson’s “American on Purpose,” which is incredibly funny. It’s primarily his story of his addiction to alcohol and then his move from Scotland to America. I also loved Carrie Fisher’s memoir, “Wishful Drinking,” which is one of the funniest memoirs I ever read.

BOOKS: What did you read for your PBS series on the Constitution that you would recommend?

SAGAL: Two really good books: “The American Constitution: A Biography” by Akhil Reed Amar. That gives you a deep understanding of the Constitution’s successes and failures. If you want to know about the actual writing of the Constitution, “Plain, Honest Men,” by Richard Beeman.

BOOKS: Do you read books by comics?

SAGAL: I’ve read books by comics, but most funny people in person don’t write funny. There are vast exceptions, like Dave Barry and Woody Allen. I think John Hodgman is the funniest prose writer. He’s not recognized well enough. His books are funny in a completely new way. Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” is one of the best books about making art ever written. It is a book about how he developed his groundbreaking stand-up routine and then why he gave it up.


BOOKS: What would you read if you had more time?

SAGAL: I’d love to be lost in some big novels. Looking at my desk here, I have Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue.” I would love to read that. I loved “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” I’d love to get lost in some nonfiction, too, like “Secret Historian” by Justin Spring, this biography about Samuel Steward, the novelist and sexual renegade who knew Alfred Kinsey. But I don’t think this promiscuous gay man is going to be material for my radio show so I can’t justify the time.

Amy Sutherland

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