“Avid Reader: A Life”
Author: Robert Gottlieb
Publisher: Farrrar, Strauss and Giroux
Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)
Robert Gottlieb is 85 years old and arguably the most important editor in America since Maxwell Perkins was editing Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe in the 20s and 30s. He should have written his memoirs long ago, but there was always the next book to seek, to sign, to edit, the next issue of the magazine to put out, and in the last 20 years or so, the next book to write, about subjects Gottlieb felt passionately about.
He writes that he was leery of the very idea of an editor’s memoir. They often become, as he humorously puts it, the stories of famous writers he has helped, encouraged, advised. He didn’t want the book to be the story of how the editor says to the writer “So, I said to him. ‘Leo! Don’t just do war! Do peace too!’”
In “Avid Reader” Gottlieb does both, the private and the professional: his childhood, life as a student, as husband and father, his personal successes and his failures, and we meet the cavalcade of great writers he has worked with.
He begins with his childhood reading. Born in 1931, he read Kipling, the “Lad: A Dog” books, the Lassie books –he liked them better, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Tom Sawyer, Jules Verne, the Oz books, and a bit surprisingly, the British equivalent perhaps of the Bobbsey Twins, Arthur Ransome’s 12 “Swallows and Amazons” books, which take place on Lake Windermere in England. His favorites he read fifty times.
He is, to say the least, an avid reader. The quintessential New Yorker, not really happy elsewhere, Gottlieb studied literature at Columbia with literary critics Trilling, Van Doren and Dupee, and read everything.
He is not distracted by money or power. He just likes to read. A lot. If you like a book by Henry James, read them all, he says. Not to know everything is to know nothing. Even religion doesn’t intrude.
“I’m just religion-deaf, the way tone-deaf people hear sounds but not music. I suppose my religion is reading.”
At work, as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster then Alfred A. Knopf, or editor-in-chief at “The New Yorker,” Gottlieb had meetings, made phone calls and met with authors, who often need a lot of hand-holding, or “caring and feeding.” He eschewed martinis and big lunches, preferring a sandwich at his desk, and THEN in the evenings he could really get to work. Gottlieb rarely goes to the movies, never sporting events, and claims not to know how to turn on his television.
His work ethic is staggering, inspirational: you’re going to edit this piece anyway, so why not tonight, and make the author happy with a one-day turnaround? It won’t be any easier tomorrow.
The authors he was nurturing? A varied collection, some eccentric, some famous, some impossible.
At 26 he was editing Thurber, Perelman and Meyer Levin, Canadian Mordecai Richler, then historians Will and Ariel Durant and Barbara Tuchman. There were successes with unlikely topics such as “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford. Gottlieb is famous as the editor of big biographies, especially Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” then the Lyndon Johnson books. Later in his career he would edit celebrity memoirs by Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Katherine Graham of the “Washington Post,” Gloria Vanderbilt, and President Bill Clinton.
The editor of Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, John Updike, George Plimpton, Bruno Bettelheim, and a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, Gottlieb midwifed “Catch-22.” He is also an advocate for good popular novelists like John LeCarre, Robert Crichton and techno-thriller author Michael Crichton.
Gottlieb became friends with many writers, but not all: V. S. Naipaul, Roald Dahl, Anthony Burgess and Salman Rushdie seem less than pleasant or easy.
Towards the end of his career, Gottlieb, the editor of others, became more of a writer himself. He has always been a devotee of dance,
Feeling that because dance is wordless, he writes that it perhaps liberated him from “the bondage of language, and balanced [his] life.” He has written a study of choreographer George Balanchine and remembers as a college student seeing Balanchine shows night after night. He “would come out of the theatre … dazed and filled with joy, jete’ing (sort of) up the street to the subway….”
There are also a book on Charles Dickens’ family and a biography of the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Not surprisingly, Gottlieb’s favorite kind of literary project is the anthology, because this gives him the opportunity to read EVERYTHING written on a subject—jazz music, modern dance—and then make his choices. He understands that anthologies can have only “ideal solutions.” One man’s perfect anthology is another man’s “mess” but he likes the process of exercising his own judgment on what gets included.
Gottlieb’s book is full of portraits, amusing anecdotes, much praise for his colleagues in publishing and a brief history of the publishing industry, once family-owned houses, now a few monster conglomerates focusing on the bottom line. The good times are gone, probably forever. But they are remembered beautifully here in “Avid Reader.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.