Books on GIF #55 — 'Avid Reader' by Robert Gottlieb
|Books on GIF||Sep 24, 2017|
This Sunday's book is 'Avid Reader' by Robert Gottlieb.
Donna gave me this book as a Christmas gift last year because she thought Gottlieb, a legendary editor at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, reminded her of me. And as I read his memoir, I was struck by several similarities between us. Both of us started reading when we were very young (my mother says I was reading at 2 years old). Both of us lucked into the first jobs of our professions and quickly moved up the ranks. We both resent authority, detest flying, 'need aloneness' and collect things (him: plastic handbags and Scotty dog memorabilia; me: Star Wars things). But perhaps most importantly we share the same philosophy for editing: The editor's job is to help the writer make their story the best it can be. It's about being a guide. Someone who knows what to take out, and what to leave in. It's not about ego or being the boss; as he says, the job 'is first, last, and always a service job.' Because:
We also share a deep love of reading and a desire to share great books with others. It's funny, my mother, who reads every one of these reviews, teases me about how even though I was an early reader, she could never get me to read books on my own, even though she filled our apartment with the classics. I thought books were boring then, and somehow beneath me. Maybe it was because of my disdain for authority. Teachers were ordering me to read, so of course I had to rebel. So great was my stubbornness about reading that I even flunked writing book reports in the fourth grade. (My mother and I laugh about that still, too.) I was doing this up through high school, where I point blank refused to read 'Ethan Frome' and took another bad grade. The only books I remember deigning to read back then were 'The Divine Comedy' (only 'Inferno' and 'Purgatorio' up to where it got really boring), some of 'The Count of Monte Cristo' (though I would tell people it was my favorite book before I even finished it!) and 'Macbeth.' I much preferred to read Piers Anthony fantasy novels and Spider-Man comic books. But deep down, I wanted to be thought of as someone who was smart and well read, I just didn't want to put in any effort. Then, a movie jolted me. It was called 'The Neverending Story,' and it has a scene where the main character, a boy named Bastian, takes refuge from some bullies inside a bookstore. The owner tells him to leave because he assumes Bastian, as a child of the video game era, wouldn't know anything about books. Bastian asserts he does. 'Comic books,' the owner harumphs. Bastian then rattles off 'Treasure Island,' 'Last of the Mohicans' 'Lord of the Rings' and a bunch of other titles he's read. When the owner turns his back, Bastian finds the titular book, absconds with it and has an adventure. Here he is:
Watching that scene again on YouTube, I remembered how exposed I felt, as if Bastian, his list and his desire to consume new and exciting literature, were accusing me of laziness. But did I change? Nope. It wasn't until I was a freshman in college that I encountered a book that changed my life: 'Catch-22' by Joseph Heller. I was like:
I had never read anything like it. Its humor, its satire, its incredibly vivid scenes: It helped me handle the confusion and stress of being a student away from home for the first time. I loved that book. I was hooked. 'Catch-22' made me want to read other books. Every. Other. Book. And I've been making up for lost time ever since. Turns out, Gottlieb edited 'Catch-22,' and even helped come up with the title when he was in his 20s and working for Simon & Schuster. I really enjoyed his anecdotes about working with Heller and many other famous writers over his decades-long career, including Toni Morrison, Katherine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron, John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Michael Crichton, Doris Lessing, Miss Piggy and many, many others. The snippets we get of his editing process are really great, and I wanted more of them. I wanted to go line by line with Gottlieb as he tackled 'Catch-22' or 'Song of Solomon' or 'I Feel Bad About My Neck.' I understand that most readers might not want such detail about a process, but I thought it would have strengthened the book for the segment of an audience who would read a memoir from an editor: other editors. Instead, there was a lot of name dropping and reminiscing about great people he worked with in book publishing who I had never heard of and didn't really care about. There was also some palace intrigue at The New Yorker that was interesting about Tina Brown and William Shawn, but I wanted more about the craft. It was clear Gottlieb was writing for readers of The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, and not a general audience. Also, 'Avid Reader' falls into a trap similar to that of 'Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life' by William Finnegan: There is a lot of first-I-did-this-then-I-did-that, which I guess is pretty standard for a memoir, but it makes me go:
Still, Gottlieb has a crisp style, and this book is a pleasant read. His love of books is infectious. He is like:
He just devours them. And I got the sense that he consumes books so avidly—sometimes reading whole tomes overnight or over a weekend—not only because he loves them or because it was his job, and not even only as an escape from the daily grind, but as a form of therapy. I can't really put my finger on it, but reading between the lines I thought I detected a hint of loneliness in this man who's surrounded by admirers, famous authors, and loving family and friends. He doesn't really dig into his family life with great depth, and there are rarely scenes of joy or intimacy that involve people and not books or a manuscript. Lurking somewhere in the subtext, I felt, was someone who often might feel like this:
Maybe I'm just projecting onto him, but this feeling made Gottlieb more relatable and human to me. Even if I'm wrong about him, 'Avid Reader' reminded me that books are powerful tools not just for entertainment or enlightenment, but also for salvation. They can light the dark times. Offer comfort in loneliness. They are trustworthy friends. They reveal to us so much about the world, and they force us to confront our own experiences and beliefs. They help us understand who we are, and they make us better people. Therefore, it's important to read and keep on reading. That was my main takeaway from Gottlieb's book. If he had explored this more, it would have made this good memoir into a powerful one.
'Avid Reader' by Robert Gottlieb was published in 2016 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 323 pages.
What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood, 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy and 'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' by Elena Ferrante.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!