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Book World began on Watergate’s heels: A look back at the early days

Michael Dirda recalls a time of typewriters and landlines, of putting together a section that captures the joy of literature and the love of reading

11 min

I was in my late 20s when I first arrived at Book World in the spring of 1978. During the previous year, I’d written a half dozen reviews for Bill McPherson, who oversaw the section, and one day he asked if I might be interested in becoming an assistant editor. He needed someone who could assign fiction, poetry, history and basically everything that wasn’t strictly political. I seemed to fit the bill.

Partly because I’d never worked at any newspaper before, everything about The Post struck me as magical. And surprisingly noisy. In those days, each staffer’s cubicle held a telephone, a heavy metal Rolodex and a Selectric typewriter. Phones in the open newsroom rang almost continuously, and reporters hammered out their stories on sheets of six-ply paper, instantly creating five copies of each page. One of those pages — called “takes” — would be scrolled up in a canister and sent via pneumatic tubes to the composing room. There, linotype machines would turn those paragraphs into rows of metal type.

In later years, compositors — we called them printers — would use heavy cardboard flats to create mock-ups of each page, a job strictly restricted to members of the printers’ guild. A dapper red-haired Englishman named Brian Jacomb always made up Book World’s pages while murmuring snatches of wisdom from old music-hall songs, such as “If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.” Once McPherson covertly repositioned some camera-ready art by himself and a foreman’s voice almost instantly rang out over the loudspeaker: “Down tools.” All work on the floor stopped. A sheepish Bill was warned never, ever to do that again.

Except for Carl Bernstein, most of the people who appear in the films “All the President’s Men” and “The Post” were still at the paper. Mrs. Graham — as Katharine Graham was always called — inspired awe, being the most patrician person I’d ever met; Ben Bradlee was ebullient and raffish; and the Op-Ed pages were looked after by the scarily intelligent Meg Greenfield. If you ran into Herblock in the corridor, he would invariably ask your opinion of his latest political cartoon. After Don Graham took over as the paper’s publisher, he regularly practiced “management by walking around” and, quite amazingly, could greet any of several hundred employees by name. What’s more, whenever you would write something especially good, you’d find a complimentary note from Don in your mailbox.

Each week, a motley crew — the section’s editor in chief and four assistant editors — provided five daily reviews for Style and filled the 16 pages of the Sunday “tab,” a stand-alone magazine section. Besides individual reviews and roundups (of children’s books, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy), each issue required a fair amount of in-house writing: snappy headlines, paragraph descriptions for a half dozen titles in New in Paperback and New in Hardcover, a literary quiz called Book Bag, and hardcover and paperback bestseller lists compiled from sales numbers reported by local bookstores.

One long-ago September, I noticed works by various French thinkers — Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the like — occasionally cropping up on the list. It turned out that a Francophile news aide named Joe, charged with compiling the list, had decided that their works should be bestsellers, and he made sure they were. Joe, by the way, was as colorful a character as Brian. If you called him over to your desk, he would stand at stiff attention, strike his chest with his fist in a Roman salute and say, “Yes, my liege.”

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I used to make up many of the Book Bag questions, but the only one I now recall was built around the close similarity in name of two contemporaries, Beatrix Potter, the creator of “Peter Rabbit” and Beatrice Potter, the Fabian socialist who, following her marriage, became Beatrice Webb. The Monday morning after that question appeared, I was called into the office of Richard Harwood, the gruff assistant managing editor who oversaw several sections including Book World. A former Marine, “Left-for-dead-on-Iwo-Jima” Harwood — as he was fondly referred to — complained that the quiz had gotten too hard, too obscure. “Dirda, I want questions like ‘Mary had a little,’ followed by a blank that people can fill in.” I nodded acquiescently, but didn’t make the questions any easier.

In those days, every major publisher sent us proofs and review copies, which were duly shelved by publication month in the Book Room. Each afternoon, after the day’s mail delivery, its floor would be covered ankle-deep in padded envelopes and small boxes. We regularly trampled on them without a second thought. What’s more, any book with “good art” might suffer mutilation if we needed an illustration for its review. As something of a bibliophile, I found cutting pictures out of books appalling, but newspaper work hardens even the most sensitive soul. When our art director, Kunio Francis Tanabe, went on vacation I was the one wielding the X-ACTO knife.

Each Monday, Book World’s staff would gather to thrash out the contents of the upcoming issue, argue about what should go on the front and, after discussing possible books for review, lament that publishing wasn’t what it once was. In assigning, we either telephoned or — yes, children — wrote actual letters to possible reviewers. The thriller writer Ross Thomas always answered his phone on the second ring and turned in immaculate copy. He could be counted on, the perfect professional. But for glamour, we might ask Stephen King to write about Robert Ludlum (which he did in a devastating evisceration), or arrange for a piece from Salman Rushdie when he was in hiding from an Islamic fatwa, or present a conversation between Joseph Heller and Mel Brooks in which they talked about their childhood reading. But we also tried out promising new writers. In 1981, I assigned Mary Robison’s “Oh!” to a Post intern named David Remnick, now the editor of the New Yorker.

In those heady years following Watergate, I regularly sought out reviewers among older writers I admired. I once spent 45 minutes chatting with novelist Christopher Isherwood about W.H. Auden, flattered Sir Harold Acton — the dedicatee of Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall” — into reviewing books on the Brideshead generation, solicited pieces from Malcolm Cowley and Morley Callaghan, who had both been expats in Paris during the 1920s, and persuaded Robert Penn Warren to send us a poem.

Among my contemporaries I commissioned as much as they could bear from composer Ned Rorem, polymath Guy Davenport, classicist Bernard Knox, and novelists Gilbert Sorrentino, Robertson Davies and Angela Carter. I remember that Angela — we became telephone friends — verged on mockery in her review of Gabriel García Márquez’s much lauded “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Roald Dahl, who somehow resisted my honeyed words, did mention that his favorite American writer was Ed McBain, creator of the 87th Precinct police procedurals. Since we grew up in the same town, I had an in with Toni Morrison and was able to sweet-talk her into a piece about Jean Toomer.

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Perhaps my proudest achievement during those first years at Book World was the monthly science fiction and fantasy column, which was only initiated after Joanna Russ, an old friend and author of the feminist classic, “The Female Man,” provided me with considerable tutelage. Soon, no other mainstream paper could match our coverage of fantastika. The legendary Theodore Sturgeon reviewed the young Thai writer S.P. Somtow. We ran an “Ode on the Death of Philip K. Dick,” by sf great Thomas M. Disch. George R.R. Martin scribbled for Book World long before “A Game of Thrones” and Ursula K. Le Guin and John Crowley became frequent and favorite reviewers of anything. Best of all, when Gene Wolfe completed “The Book of the New Sun,” John Clute’s account of the final volume, “The Citadel of the Autarch,” deserved the front page and got it.

Washington has always been a great book town. For a big spread in Weekend, David Streitfeld — then Book World’s nonpareil publishing correspondent, now a business reporter for the New York Times — and I visited and briefly described 35 secondhand bookshops in the greater metro area. One memorable evening, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan hosted a party on the Hill where I found myself arguing about Ezra Pound with novelist Bernard Malamud and CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton. My wife and I then lived in the same apartment building as Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist Mary McGrory. Once, when I was off to the laundry room with a basket of dirty clothes, the elevator opened and there stood Teddy Kennedy and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, both on their way to Mary’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.

Book World was always trying new ways to keep the section lively. For instance, we ran a half dozen pieces tracking how a book is made: In one, Leo and Diane Dillon revealed the secrets of dust-jacket illustration. We even devoted entire special issues to off-trail subjects, including home maintenance. I actually reviewed seven or eight plumbing-repair manuals. Back in the 80s, another theme issue presciently focused on comics and included pieces on the Hernandez Brothers, Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”

Unrelentingly, each year our seasonal specials, geared to children’s books, winter holidays, and vacation reading, demanded fresh crowd-pleasing features. For one summer reading issue, I asked John Sutherland — an expert on popular fiction — for an annotated list of the 20 worst or kitschiest books that had become 20th-century best sellers. “At No. 19,” Sutherland wrote, “I nominate the vulgarest novel I have ever read, Judith Krantz’s 1991 bestseller, ‘Dazzle.’ ” I was pleased to see this. My own review of that novel had begun: “I read ‘Dazzle’ in one sitting. I had to. I was afraid I couldn’t face picking it up again.”

As children’s book editor, I started asking various writers to recall their childhood reading in, for instance, Argentina (Alberto Manguel), India (Shashi Tharoor) and the Soviet Union (Cathy Young). Perhaps Book World’s most popular feature, “Rediscoveries,” looked at books undeservedly neglected and was chiefly the work of Noel Perrin (who assembled his essays in “A Reader’s Delight”). Much later, Book World editor Marie Arana undertook a terrific series of author interviews, eventually published as “The Writing Life,” while the Library of Congress’s poets laureate — Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky — wrote infectiously about their favorite poems in “Poet’s Choice.”

Sigh, my editors tell me I really must stop. Still, this has been the shallowest of dives into Book World’s early history and much has had to be left out (some of it scandalous — those were the days!). What’s more, I’ve no doubt that my former colleagues — only a few of whom I was able to mention — would tell different and better stories. The fact remains that in 2009, the Sunday tab ceased publication and book coverage was divided between Style and Outlook, where it has remained until now. But with this issue of Book World, its editors — John Williams, Stephanie Merry, Steven Levingston, Nora Krug and Jacob Brogan — with the help of critic Ron Charles and office manager Becky Meloan relaunch a stand-alone Sunday section. They’re even letting me stick around to be part of the fun. Come join us.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for Book World, and author of the memoir “An Open Book,” the Edgar Award-winning “On Conan Doyle” and five collections of essays: “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book,” “Classics for Pleasure” and “Browsings.”

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