Thursday, January 5, 2017

"Avid Reader: A Life," by Robert Gottlieb

Editor/critic/writer Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, “Avid Reader: A Life” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a big box of goodies for those of us who love reading. Gottlieb, who is now in his mid-80s, still healthy and still working, has given us a book crammed full of stories, names, discreet but (almost) never mean-spirited gossip, opinions, and wonderful insights into the world of publishing, as well as into his own life. The index is one of the longest lists of literary and related figures I have seen in a book. And much of the book is a kind of annotated listing of the authors he has edited, the people he has known. Name dropping? Yes indeed. But he has earned the right to do so. And he does it with such joy that it is hard to fault him. There are a lot of stories that start and end with how close Gottlieb became to this and that big name author or smaller name editor or agent or other person in his life. He does seem to have a genuine talent for many close friendships, and he says toward the end of the book that this comes at least partly from his yearning for family. He has his own family – a (second) wife (who is an actress) and three grown children – but lacked a close relationship with his family of origin, in which he was the only child of loving but sometimes difficult parents. Gottlieb seems to have lived two or three lives, not only with his editorial work at Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and the New Yorker, but with his intense involvement with his family and his friends; with the world of dance (especially the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet) through various types of work and support and board memberships; with much travel; with his several homes spread out over the U.S. and in Paris; with his own writing (which he started in late middle age, and which includes literary and dance criticism among other topics); with his several intense collecting projects (he has collected and written about many quirky pop culture items such as plastic handbags); and more. And throughout, he always, always, always reads and reads and reads. There is a certain amount of humblebragging, but somehow it is easy to forgive him, as his persona, at least in the book, is easygoing, friendly, and engaging. I have to note and appreciate that Gottlieb seems to deeply admire (without making a special point of it or patting himself on the back for it) and have many (platonic) friendships with women. Okay, the good stuff: Here are some of the names of people he has edited or otherwise connected with, and this is just a tiny fraction of those he discusses in the book: Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Jessica Mitford, Cynthia Ozick, John Cheever, Antonia Fraser, Katherine Graham, Gail Godwin, Pauline Kael, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, John le Carre, Doris Lessing, Natalia Makarova, Edna O’Brien, George Plimpton, Twyla Tharp, Barbara Tuchman, and so many, many more. In case I haven't made it clear: reading “Avid Reader” was pure, pure pleasure for me!
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