Avid Reader: A book review by Bob Morris

Avid Reader: A Life
Robert Gottlieb
Farrah, Straus and Giroux (2016)

Self-portrait of a remarkable life that continues to be driven and nourished by reading

Since childhood, Robert Gottlieb has been an avid reader of books and those who write them as well as of those who read them. This helps to explain his success thus far and the lifestyle (synonymous with workstyle) he prefers. Other reviewers have noted where he worked and with whom. No need to recycle that information. What fascinates me is how much he shares about his personal thoughts, feelings, and opinions. As he notes, “For various reasons – I wanted to set the record straight. [Until reading this book, I had no idea what the ‘record’ is]; I wanted to say things about editing and publishing and even myself – I eventually changed my mind and have, to my chagrin, discovered the inevitability of the Tolstoy syndrome. There is no way I could talk bout editing and publishing except in terms of the books I myself have worked on,” including this one. And so he has. It’s all here.

Gottlieb is like everyone else in that names from his past evoke memories of shared experiences. These are among the persons whose last name begins with “A” or “B”: Diane Ackerman, Renata Adler, Caroline Alexander, Roger Angell, Eve Arnold, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner; Lauren Bacall, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jeanine Basinger, Sybille Bedford, Adam Begley, John Bennett, Michael Berkeley, Robert Bernstein, Carl Bernstein, Bruno Bettelheim, Humphrey Bogart, Nina Bourne, Louise Brooks, Tina Brown, Paulo Andrea Burgess, and Anthony Burgess.

What was it like to interact with these and other people? What did he learn about them? What did he learn about himself because of his association with them, directly or indirectly? Some relationships (lasting decades) were based on mutual respect and trust. Other relationships had to be endured to get a manuscript completed and then into publication. Still others were based on brief encounters from time to time. Gottlieb is an especially astute observer and his judgments seem sound, seldom self-serving. In ways and to an extent that are true of few other public figures, books have been the gravitational center of his life and that remains true in his 86th year.

In his review of the book for The New York Times, Thomas Mallon observes, “Robert Gottlieb’s buoyant memoir of his indefatigable editorial career proves Noël Coward’s observation that work is more fun than fun. Gottlieb is willing, in fact, to go beyond that: “From the start, words were more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting.” The range of what he read — “from Racine to nurse romances” — always remained even wider than the multi-browed spectrum of material he published at Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf. His life has been a busman’s holiday without any brakes — he was once at the hospital with his wife, “checking over Cynthia Ozick galleys while helping count . . . contractions” — and his gift as an editor was to grasp that every book is both ineffable (tone is “something that, if it’s wrong, no editor can fix”) and improvable (“cutting . . . will edge a book closer to its Platonic self”).

I agree with Michael Dirda, in his review for the Washington Post: “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.”

Gottlieb’s observations in the last chapter provide an especially appropriate conclusion to my brief commentary: “I never felt I was a star. I don’t now feel disregarded. And, yes, the end may very well be hard, but perhaps fate will be kind, and at least let me keep on reading for a while.”

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