Sarah Vowell

Theradio star and author on adventurous reading—maritime, murderous, and musical.

Fans of the public radio program This American Life have long known Sarah Vowell’s instantly recognizable blend of earnest inquiry and sardonic Gen-X humor.   But with a string of books that meditate on subjects ranging from popular culture (Radio On), politics (The Partly Cloudy Patriot) and  American history (Assassination Vacation), Vowell has come into her own as a chronicler of the overlooked aspects of American history. Her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, is a typically personal –and illuminating–  look at the strange meeting of 19th-century New England missionaries with Hawaii’s royalty.  Sarah Vowell spoke with us about three of her favorite books, below.

Books by Sarah Vowell


By Herman Melville

“When I’m writing and I get stuck, I grab this hoary old yarn and crack it open, diving in at random just to splash its weird words at my head like cold salt water. I just did that and happened on the chapter where Ahab is described as ‘a Khan of the plank.’ Never fails to wake me up.”

Killing Floor

By Lee Child

“Seems like detective fiction and its spawn is about the only genre that consistently finds virtue in solitude. This is the first novel in Child’s addictive series about Jack Reacher, an ex-military policeman turned drifter. I buy Child’s books on the day they come out thanks to his unsurpassed ability to incubate suspense and his lonesome protagonist’s relentlessness.”

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

By Lester Bangs, edited by Greil Marcus

“I read this hilarious, heartbroken collection of old record reviews and other pieces about pop music as I was writing my first articles for my college newspaper. I’ve been trying to live up to Bangs’s candor, liberty and morality ever since. There is a six-paragraph ode to Lou Reed written during the hostage crisis in Iran that sings the praises of the authors of the Magna Carta whilst imagining a future of ‘sharing bar beers with our parents.'”