cover image Avid Reader: A Life

Avid Reader: A Life

Robert Gottlieb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-3742-7992-9

Gottlieb (Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens), the former head of the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house and ex-editor of the New Yorker, looks back on his exploits taming America’s literary lions in this canny, exuberant memoir. He frames his breezy, loose-limbed narrative around vignettes of his dealings with people in the publishing world and, especially, with the authors he edited, including Lauren Bacall, Robert Caro, John Cheever, Bill Clinton, Joseph Heller, and Toni Morrison. His lengthy account of his controversial 1987 takeover of the New Yorker editorship from the legendary William Shawn—outraged staffers asked him to turn it down—unfolds into a good-humored but probing inquest into the magazine’s cloistered culture. Another section follows his adventures on the board of the New York City Ballet, with brilliant choreographer George Balanchine and brilliant impresario Lincoln Kirstein. Gottlieb’s portraits of the literati are vivid, usually generous, and always clear-eyed (thriller writer Michael Crichton, he allows, has a knack for catchy conceits, although “what [he] wasn’t was a very good writer”). Gottlieb’s depictions of editing sessions really shine as he describes helping each author sculpt a book into its ideal form, and he conveys the enormous energy and creativity of American publishing. Photos. (Sept. 13)