Book Review

Avid Reader: A Life—Robert Gottlieb

Avid Reader

Cover flap text: How does someone become the most celebrated editor of his time?

After editing The Cambridge Review, staging plays at Cambridge, and doing a stint in the greeting-card department of Macy’s, Robert Gottlieb stumbled into a job at Simon and Schuster. By the time he left to run Alfred A. Knopf a dozen years later, he was the editor-in-chief, having discovered and edited Catch-22The American Way of DeathThe Chosen, and True Grit, among other exceptional books. At Knopf, Gottlieb edited an astonishing list of authors including Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Doris Lessing, John le Carré, Michael Crichton, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Graham, Robert Caro, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Tuchman, Nora Ephron, and Bill Clinton—not to mention Bruno Bettelheim and Miss Piggy.

In Avid Reader, Gottlieb writes with candor about succeeding William Shawn as the editor of The New Yorker, and the challenges and satisfactions of running America’s most renowned magazine. Sixty years after joining Simon and Schuster, Gottlieb is still at it—editing, anthologizing, and, to his surprise, writing.

But this account of a life founded upon reading is about more than the arc of a singular career—one that also includes a lifelong vocation in the world of dance. It’s about transcendent friendships and collaborations, “elective affinities” and family, psychoanalysis and plastic pocketbooks, the alchemical relationship between writer and editor, the glory days of publishing, and—always—the sheer exhilaration of work.

Most of my book reviews lately have started with “I don’t like [insert genre of book here]” and this is going to be no different. I don’t like memoirs. Ninety-nine percent of all memoirs are written by people who have done literally nothing and think they’re important enough to write a book just because they’re a person. Now, I know people who love memoirs and think I’m a cynic or heartless or something, but unless you’re a former president or a winner of a major award of some kind or actually accomplished something, I don’t care. Biographies are a different story, because someone else thought you were important. Otherwise, memoirs just seem very egotistical to me.

Now, Robert Gottlieb (if you read his impressive/excessive list of accolades above) has done a lot of things. A lot of cool things. He’s also spent a lot of his time collecting plastic handbags and putting on ballets. And also editing books and magazines.

There’s something you learn about major editors, specifically magazine editors, when you learn about the big ones—they all have a certain opinion of themselves and their ideas. To be fair, you can’t constantly question yourself when you have an entire magazine or publishing house on your shoulders. And Gottlieb definitely fits the type.

For those interested in publishing history, Avid Reader is a great book. Gottlieb has a long history with some of the most important publishing houses in the country. There’s also a lot about ballets and plastic purses and everyone’s exes. But that’s to be expected in a memoir. I’m most interested in The New Yorker and Knopf, but there was more to Gottlieb’s life than just books. Not much more for many years, but some more.

Memoirs, man.

Avid Reader HUD

  • Avid Reader: A Life
  • Author: Robert Gottlieb
  • First Edition: 2016
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • First Reading
  • Date Started: 2/22/17
  • Date Finished: 3/22/17
  • Rating: 4/5
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