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'Avid Reader' is the story of a publishing icon and friend to authors

Over the decades, Robert Gottlieb worked with a veritable Who's Who of 20th-century literary figures.

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    Avid Reader:
    A Life
    By Robert Gottlieb
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    352 pp.
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When Edward Weeks, the legendary long-time editor at Boston's old Atlantic magazine (which has since decamped to Washington), was at last prevailed upon to write a memoir, he looked back with gentle affection on his days in the Atlantic's office overlooking Boston Common, which shared “a large  high-studded room with windows giving on a fire escape where the Common's pigeons nested and cooed” and where the incoming manuscripts were labelled Today, Yesterday, and The Abyss of Time. Weeks's 1960 book, "In Friendly Candour," reminisced about the trenches of the literary world, and Weeks looked back on the days in 1925 when his old friend Dick Simon, having just founded Simon & Schuster, was carrying around mock-up copies of the crossword puzzle books that would be the financial making of his firm.

"In Friendly Candour" was everything Weeks's many friends and colleagues had been hoping for during the long decades it took to convince him to write it. It became a classic in the admittedly rarefied sub-genre of publishing memoirs, and now, nearly a century after Weeks was sitting on his sofa with Dick Simon, readers can delight in another such publishing-world classic, this one from an institution at the house Dick Simon built: Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb, former editor of The New Yorker, former editor-in-chief at Knopf, and former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief.

Gottlieb has been everything in his long career as a man of letters: author, anthologist, dance enthusiast intimately connected the New York City Ballet of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein (“I had lived for many years inside the yolk of the Balanchine-Kirstein egg,” as he inimitably puts it), cultural critic, and most of all editor, who worked with a veritable Who's Who of 20th century literary figures, from Ray Bradbury to John Cheever to Toni Morrison to John Gardner. His roster of nonfiction authors was equally extensive and equally impressive: Katharine Graham found him invaluable, as did Lauren Bacall, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman, and Antonia Fraser, plus a host of others, most of whom ended up considering him a friend as well as a mentor.

Friendship runs like a strong current throughout "Avid Reader." Gottlieb is the first to point out that his passions were for books, publishing, and people rather than money (“[i]n all my career I only once asked for a raise,” he tells us, “and that was out of pique, not hunger for money”). 

“All in all,” he admits with touching simplicity, “I feel I've been at my best as a friend – it's a natural state of being for me.” And as fascinating as his publishing anecdotes are, the book's warmest moments invariably attach to his accounts of those friendships, with perhaps the highlight being his reflection on his problematic relationship with Lincoln Kirstein (“His brilliance was indisputable, his accomplishments legendary … his personal force almost overwhelming”).

Even so, his book-world anecdotes are uniformly riveting, catnip to the die-hard bookworms who will surely make up the bulk of the readership of "Avid Reader." For instance, he tells the story of a gregarious former President Bill Clinton assuring him that their collaboration on Clinton's epic memoir, "My Life," would go smoothly. “We're going to have a good time. Ask anyone here. You'll find that I'm very easy to work for,” Clinton said, to which Gottlieb – to the cheers of editors everywhere – replied, “Actually, I have to point out that in this instance I'm not working for you, you're working for me.”

He praises the great historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett and tells us that he read her novel "Checkmate" until four in the morning and then did something he'd never done before: stayed home from work in order to finish a book. About foreign affairs reporter Mark Danner, a perfectionist with a penchant for brooding over his stories, Gottlieb confesses, “He drove the staff to madness, but he was worth it.”

He worries at the beginning of his book that all editors' memoirs are basically self-serving, coming down to the same thing: “So I said to him, 'Leo! Don't just do war! Do peace too!'” – and although it turns out he can't resist the occasional such moment himself (encouraging Toni Morrison to leave her editing job at Random House and turn her attentions to writing full-time, for instance: “Your agent and I will work out the money side of things. You just write”), the abiding impression of "Avid Reader" is that of a shrewdly observant and powerfully, quietly encouraging source of support for writers and fellow editors smart enough to accept it.

Gottlieb still edits now, in his 80s, although he's lightened his workload accordingly. As he tells it, the only novelist he still works with is Morrison: “Since we're exactly the same age, the actuarial gods are neutral,” he writes with typical deadpan humor. “I want her to live forever, and I want to edit her forever.” Every reader of "Avid Reader" will likewise hope for the same thing; editors like this are always in short supply.

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