“I began as I would go on—reading.” Talk about fantastic first sentences. Those words begin Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, Avid Reader: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and they immediately establish that even though Gottlieb has worked his entire life as an editor, first at Simon and Schuster, then at Knopf, and after that, at The New Yorker followed up with freelance editing, service to the board of the New York City Ballet, and finally, as a writer, he remains at heart a reader. He has edited everything and everyone, from literature to trash, and he recounts in detail the struggles and triumphs of the written word shaped by a writer and a good editor.
The story begins at the beginning with a tale of how a boy became a reader and then an editor. It is full of magic moments with books and texts, and for the diehard book-lover who thrives on the printed word, there is a lot to be thrilled about in this book. Gottlieb reinforces the idea that life-long reading habits begin in childhood: if parents inculcate reading as the preferred sport, the children will follow suit. Gottlieb’s father, a lawyer, often went to the Brentano’s across the street from his law offices to indulge himself “with half a dozen books, all nonfiction.” This was during the Depression, when spare change wasn’t spare at all. Every penny counted, but books, at least in the Gottlieb household were a necessity. Gottlieb went on to great feats of consumption of text: reading War and Peace in a single sprint lasting fourteen hours, for example. Many times, he and his parents sat at the dinner table eating, all three deeply engrossed in a book. “Only later did it occur to me that this was not normal,” he tells us. But the worlds described in books were “more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting.” So read he does, including when his wife struggled to bring a baby into the world. Gottlieb stood by for the birth, deeply engrossed in the galleys of one of his authors, editing, editing.
Although he did not always fit in at school, he does have good things to say about Columbia and how the university changed his life. It was the “intense atmosphere of seriousness about literature” that most inspired him to read, often all night, and then skip his morning classes. He read widely—the Russian novelists, Proust, James—all the usual suspects. He contributed to The Columbia Review, and spent a semester working on Hawthorne’s notebooks. It was this work, this work of reading, that would save him, he tells us. After bouncing around New York post graduation, he finally landed at Simon and Schuster, and his long editorial odyssey began. He goes on to edit some of the major writers of the 20th century. We learn that Will and Ariel Durant were “self-important” and “demanding”; Jessica Mitford “loved to expose chicanery,” and “loved most of all revealing the idiocies of the foolish, the greedy and the pompous.”
The stories of his work with writers are most interesting. We learn how the books we have come to love and read and reread were made. His narrative voice is strong, and Gottlieb is not afraid to expose his own foibles and shortcomings, nor does he cut himself any slack when discussing some of his more eccentric hobbies like collecting women’s plastic purses or falling in love with dance. He is consistently humble and without guile, seemingly always excited to work with an author, even when the person drove him to the brink of madness. He flat out says that the late, mega-selling Michael Crichton “was not a very good writer…sloppily plotted, underwritten, and worst of all, with no characterization whatsoever.” Crichton could not “create convincing human beings…because they just didn’t interest him.”
Gottlieb is as hard on himself as he is on the important literary figures he has known. His divorce, psychoanalysis, his quirks and phobias including a healthy fear of flying, all add up to a character with a life well-lived with whom a reader might want to have a deep, ongoing conversation about that life and literature. In fact, the book has a breezy, conversational tone. It is clear, Gottlieb has fun at his job. He says several times that he loves his work and when he was at Knopf or Simon and Schuster, he often could not wait to get to work each day.
Even stories about his first days at The New Yorker, a subject fully vetted in many media outlets, are interesting. Gottlieb exhibits some courage entering those hallowed halls when most of the staff felt that William Shawn, the legendary editor, had been wronged by S. I. Newhouse when the publisher eased him out in favor of Gottlieb. Of course, Gottlieb, himself, says he was just doing his job, but one can tell it is was a difficult transition, especially when Shawn told his writers and staff that he had been fired, which was not entirely true. One interesting piece of the magazine story is Gottlieb’s encounter with Eleanor Gould, the legendary grammarian and fact checker at The New Yorker. In describing a draft that had passed across her desk, Gottlieb writes: “I had never seen anything like it—the tiny handwriting, the long lines and arrows snaking around every page, filling every margin, and not just asking questions of grammar but raising issues of logic, sense, and indirection.” Gould died in 2005; she was probably the first celebrity grammarian.
For readers, Gottlieb’s book makes for an excellent diversion offering insight into the world of publishing. It is not always a glamorous world with its obsessive parsing of words, but Gottlieb’s storytelling voice is strong and true, full of character and detail. It is much too soon to write off the importance of the printed book in our culture. E-reader sales have slowed, and most people still prefer the solid heft of a novel in their hands rather than a digital file on a tablet. What we forget, or simply do not understand, is that an editor is as important to the publishing process as the OB-GYN who delivers a baby. Yes, the mother does all the work and the baby exits the womb into the world, but the doctor is there to catch the infant and help him breathe his first breath. Editors do the same. They often provide structure and balance to the writer’s work and try to challenge the artist to be true to the endeavor and produce the best work possible. For that, all readers are grateful.