“One of my duties is to come up with a list of seven or eight books every month that everyone should read,” New York Magazine critic Boris Kachka explains. “So, I’m kind of constantly 40 pages into something. And then sometimes I stop; if I keep going it’ll probably wind up on that list. Sometimes the storylines get a little confused in my head, which maybe is not a good sign because it means the stories aren’t that original. But that happens a lot. It just turns into mush.”
So, what should we be reading — besides your book, Hothouse — Boris?
“There’s this novel coming out by Alex Chee that I’m really into right now,” he says, “The Queen of the Night.” Kachka tells me 2015 produced a lot of great material like Fates and Furies, but that “everyone else says that too, so I try to think of other ones.” He goes on, “I’m a huge fan of Colum McCann and he had a book of four novellas called Thirteen Ways of Looking. I think he’s an amazing writer, sentence by sentence. He’s actually not very funny: I usually don’t like anything that’s overly earnest — it turns me off — but he can pull off the lyrical. I mean, he’s Irish, maybe that’s part of it. He can pull off classic lyricism just perfectly.”
Kachka recommends Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, saying it’s “a rare feat for a musician to do something worth reading.” Then, he goes even further off the beaten path. “If you want to go a little wacky there’s this book by Paul Kingsnorth called The Wake. It’s in this — I love these books that don’t come out very often — in this made up Old English. So, it gets a bit of the other side of your brain working because you’re trying to figure out what the words actually mean. They’re spelled phonetically, but 50 pages in you’re totally immersed. I’m not that into sci-fi: That’s my version of sci-fi, where the system is not the world you’re building, but the actual language itself.”
I ask Kachka his go-to move outside of the printed word. “Night is my podcast time,” he says. “I’m really into this podcast that actually is quite repetitive. It’s called The History of the English Language. It’s done by this lawyer in Virginia who’s an amateur linguist. It goes through from the beginnings of Indo-European language. It became this joke of waiting for the Norman invasion and then finally 65 episodes in, he got to the Norman invasion, so I’m very excited about that.”
“When I start a podcast I have to finish it,” he continues. “My exception is WTF. I can’t do three episodes a week, it’s insane. There probably is some kind of meta podcast, but there should be someone out there to tell you if this person — this comic or this musician you don’t really know that well — if it’s worth your time to listen. Because often I’ll turn a random one on and it’s actually pretty good. But other times I don’t care what happened at the Comedy Store in 1987; I just don’t give a shit.” He then lists Gabfest, Radiolab, and This American Life as popular podcasts he also digs. Then he goes quirky again. “I really like Jordan, Jesse, Go!. It’s slightly embarrassing because it’s utter bullshit rambling for an hour and a half. They have different guests on every week and they just shoot the shit.”
Kachka is not opposed, let it be said, to shit shooting — just a bit skeptical.
Kachka finds an innovative way of finding out new tunes, too. “There’s not a lot of mechanisms for me to discover it expect for reading reviews in magazines, but KEXP has this rolling podcast called Music That Matters,” he says. “I just let it go and I write down the names of different things that I’m hearing. I was listening to this one the other day and there was this band from New Zealand called Salad Boys that I really liked. There’s this other one from Russia called Pink Shiny Ultra Blast. So I get to hear what their new albums sound like and then I check them out on Spotify.”
He name checks Transparent as must-watch TV and then tells me about Borgen. “It’s kind of like a Danish West Wing. But instead of there being a president, it’s a prime minister and it’s all about the machinations of parliamentary politics. But, you know, it’s Denmark so stakes are weirdly low,” he says. “The most right-wing people want to reduce tensions for the unions — like that’s their most extreme position.” He also watches The Leftovers “in the dark of night” after his wife is asleep (she didn’t like it) and “lost a month watching Game of Thrones.”
When I ask Kachka if he’s seen any good movies lately, he explains that his two-year-old prevents a lot of cinema attendance. “The thing we’ll get a babysitter for is like when we went to see Hamilton,” he says of the much-heralded Broadway production. “I don’t have anything necessarily to add, except to say I also have the soundtrack and it’s just totally different actually seeing it. Much more impressive.”