On my desk, next to a P.G. Wodehouse coffee mug filled with pencils, I keep a lapel button that reads: “Life? Of course I have a life. It’s a life filled with books.” As it happens, you won’t find a better precis than that of Robert Gottlieb’s splendid memoir “Avid Reader.”
During a six-decade career as an editor and publisher, Gottlieb shepherded into print a few titles you just might have heard of, including Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Robert A. Caro’s multivolume life of Johnson (Lyndon, that is), and the autobiographies of Lauren Bacall, Bill Clinton and, not least, Katharine Graham.
Born in New York City in 1931, the only child of a lawyer and schoolteacher, Gottlieb explains that “from the start, words were more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting.” As a boy, he reread favorite volumes in Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” series as many as 50 times each. As a teenager and college student, he was what collectors call a completist. “What was the point of reading only some of a writer’s work? In the summers I would sweep straight through a writer chronologically, one year, Conrad; the next, Cather.” He devoured the seven volumes of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” in seven days. A twerpy-looking bookworm, he disliked the outdoors, loved dance and theater and was afraid to fly. In the words of his first wife’s roofing-contractor father, “If I had a son like that, I’d take him out and drown him like a sick kitten.”
Gottlieb attended Columbia University during the heyday of Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren and then spent a couple of years at Cambridge University in England. When he returned home, he went looking for a job — by now he was a married man with a small child, though he still looked about 16 (and was carded at liquor stores well into his 30s). Through a series of flukes, he was eventually hired as an assistant to Jack Goodman, the head of Simon and Schuster. When Goodman died at age 47, the company fell into disarray, and Gottlieb — through hard work and a gift for friendship — gradually emerged as the firm’s new powerhouse editor.
While working at S&S in the 1950s and ’60s and then at Knopf from 1968 to 1987, Gottlieb favored “superior popular fiction” and high-end commercial nonfiction. Whatever the genre, he aimed to publish only the best books and, in particular, those about which he felt personally impassioned. He once defined the publisher’s role as “essentially the act of making public one’s own enthusiasm,” and his own enthusiasms were impressively diverse, ranging from Rona Jaffe’s sex-and-the-city classic “The Best of Everything” to Michael Crichton’s science-fiction thriller “The Andromeda Strain” to Barbara Tuchman’s panoramic “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.”
However, Gottlieb’s otherwise catholic taste didn’t extend to innovative or experimental fiction; works such as William Gaddis’s “JR,” he writes, “seemed to me more constructs than novels.”And sometimes, he admits, his usually sound judgment let him down: He mentions that he rejected Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” both of which would win Pulitzer Prizes.
In a prefatory note, Gottlieb emphasizes that “it’s one’s successes one tends to remember.” Perhaps so, yet this mental tic unavoidably skews “Avid Reader” toward triumphalism: In these pages the account of one blockbuster follows another in a colorful procession of bestsellers. But of the 20 or 30 books Gottlieb personally edited each year, were there none he deeply cherished that never found an audience or that even now deserve to be rediscovered? The brilliant failures, the idiosyncratic minor classics, the good, solid novels by dependable mid-list authors — these are essential to a healthy literary culture, and it would have been good to hear about some of them. That said, Gottlieb does contend that “Something Happened” is Joseph Heller’s finest novel.
For all his declared bookishness, this near legendary editor reveals himself to be as much a people person as an avid reader. In his memoir’s final chapter, Gottlieb concludes that he has always been happiest when “part of a relatively small group of congenial, like-minded people with whom I share a common goal.” More than that, he quite literally regards numerous writers and publishing colleagues as family, as the people he vacations with and invites to Thanksgiving dinner. As a result, Gottlieb overuses phrases like “after close to fifty years, still a dear friend and indispensable colleague” and “I went on working with her for more than twenty years, and loved her until she died.” Sincere sentiments, no doubt, but a few such air kisses go a long way.
That said, Gottlieb frankly calls Roald Dahl a pain to work with and daringly describes publishing diva Blanche Knopf as “a tiny woman who looked as if she had gone straight from Dachau to Elizabeth Arden. No wonder everyone was scared of her.” He notes, too, that Katharine Hepburn and Susan Sontag shared “the same ruthless determination, the same sense of privilege, the same get-out-of-my-way stride.”
In 1987, Gottlieb left Knopf to oversee the New Yorker, which he ran for five years (until being replaced by the flamboyant Tina Brown). While in charge, he hired Washington Post reporter David Remnick, who would in due course take over as the magazine’s editor. Since 1992, Gottlieb has again worked for Knopf on a part-time basis, usually editing manuscripts by old friends or big-ticket items such as Bill Clinton’s autobiography (to which he devotes several pages). Just as important, he has also reinvented himself as a literary journalist, reviewing dance performances and editing anthologies of jazz criticism, as well as producing a wonderful, unlikely book about Charles Dickens’s 10 children.
Despite my few cavils, “Avid Reader” will be avidly read by anyone interested in the publishing world of the past 60 years. After all, not since Max Perkins worked with Hemingway and Fitzgerald has there been a more admired editor than Robert Gottlieb. His has been, he would admit, a privileged and enviable life, which is really just another way of saying that it has been a life filled with books.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
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By Robert Gottlieb
Farrar Straus Giroux. 327 pp. $28