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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Avid Reader

A Life

Robert Gottlieb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




I BEGAN AS I WOULD GO ON—reading. By the time I was four, my grandfather had shown me how to do it, mostly by having me follow along as he read to me. My mother, a New York City public school teacher, left for work early every morning, but Grampa, her father, who lived with us until he died when I was nine, was always there, and after breakfast I would climb into his bed and he would tell me stories, teach me chess, and read aloud. Most important were Kipling’s Jungle Books, and I still have the two volumes—one bound in mustard, one in green—that he read from, and which thrilled me. But before that was Dorothy Kunhardt’s Junket Is Nice, which came into the world in 1933, two years after I did, and which I couldn’t get enough of. (Later, she would write the indispensable Pat the Bunny.) Although it was a success, Junket Is Nice disappeared—not just my copy, but altogether. Apparently there were legal problems with the Junket people, and only recently has it been restored to us. Going back to it after more than seventy-five years, I discovered that it’s about a little boy who turns out to be smarter than anyone else in the world. What a surprise that I needed constant access to it!

The next book to seize me totally was read to our fourth-grade class by nice, motherly Mrs. Hurst. It was Lad: A Dog, by Albert Payson Terhune, and dogs were my passion. But Lad was not a dog like my cute little Waggie; Lad was a collie, and—a recurrent Terhune theme—a thoroughbred. Albert Payson Terhune did not care for “mongrels,” in fact was a devoted eugenicist—the burglar whom Lad routs in the middle of the night is, unsurprisingly, a “negro.” But what did I know about eugenics? Lad was noble, Lad was true. As I discovered on a recent rereading, among his many exploits Lad saved the life of a five-year-old paralyzed girl by flinging himself between her and a striking copperhead, not only almost dying from snake venom but somehow prompting the child to walk. I already loved dogs—so much easier to deal with than other children—and Lad was not just any dog, as we learn in the first paragraph: “He had the gay courage of d’Artagnan, and an uncanny wisdom. Also—who could doubt it, after a look into his mournful brown eyes—he had a soul.” I tried not to show I was crying during Mrs. Hurst’s read-alouds.

Lad: A Dog went through seventy printings in its original edition, and Terhune went on to write at least thirty other dog books, many of which I read and all of which I assume displayed the mawkish Terhune style and reflected the repulsive Terhune beliefs. But it was Lad that revealed to me the amazing power of books to arouse feelings—and therefore to change lives. I was emotionally prepared when Eric Knight’s Lassie Come-Home (the movie dropped the hyphen) came my way, an infinitely better book than Lad, which I think I recognized even then. Horse books didn’t get to me, not even Black Beauty, although I liked and still like Mary O’Hara’s Flicka trilogy. But it was their boy hero, Ken, with whom I identified, not the horses.

Of course I also read the established children’s classics—Alice, The Wind in the Willows, Tom Sawyer, Jules Verne, all the Oz books and Dr. Dolittle books—as well as the more recent ones, especially the inevitable Winnie-the-Poohs. There were also adventure series, which I could take out from the public library in batches of three or four: Tarzan, naturally, and a successful rip-off series I liked even more, the only title of which I remember being Bomba the Jungle Boy in the Swamp of Death, which I haven’t revisited.

The key books of my childhood, though—and sometimes, I think, of my entire life—were the twelve novels by Arthur Ransome, beginning with Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930, just in time for me. The Swallows were the four Walker children, the Amazons were the two Blackett girls, and they took their aliases from the two little boats they sailed in the summers on the author’s reimagining of Lake Windermere in England’s Lake District. In the fourth book, Winter Holiday, they’re joined by the two Callum children, Dick (a budding scientist) and Dorothea (a novelist-in-waiting). These two were the characters I felt closest to: Bookish, shy loners, they were the outsiders who were swept up by the Swallows and Amazons and joined in their adventures. I was certainly not an adventurer, and didn’t want to be one, so it wasn’t the sailing, the camping out, the racing, or the gentle plots that called to me. It was that community of decent, independent youngsters, superbly individualized by Ransome, trusted by their parents, enjoying a healthy childhood, having fun. If the Walkers and the Blacketts could adopt the Callums, they might have made room for me.

Over a period of four or five years I read and reread and re-reread the Ransome books—my favorites as many as fifty times each. They were the counterpoint to school, homework, playing cards with my parents and occasionally chess with my father (the only activity we shared), typical nighttime phone calls with classmates, and radio—the essential entertainment of the period. Since I was sickly (though not as sickly as I made myself out to be), I was home from school a lot, caught up in radio soap operas—Our Gal Sunday (the story of an orphaned mountain girl married to Lord Henry Brinthrope, England’s “richest, most handsome Lord”); Life Can Be Beautiful (the story of the waif Chichi Conrad, who one day stumbles into benign Papa David Solomon’s Slightly Read Bookshop, where she takes up permanent residence along with the embittered cripple Stephen); Mary Marlin (theme song: “Clair de Lune”), in which the heroine, when her husband, Senator Joe Marlin, disappears while on a secret mission to Siberia, becomes senator in his stead. And let’s not forget Ma Perkins, Stella Dallas (“based on the immortal novel by Olive Higgins Prouty”), and the quintessential Romance of Helen Trent, “who, when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair, fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many women long to prove, that because a woman is thirty-five or more, romance in life need not be over.” (Helen Trent broadcast for twenty-seven years.) I assume that all this sentimental radio melodrama helped prepare me for my later immersion, both as reader and as editor, in genre fiction. It was certainly harmless stuff, since nothing bad or nasty ever really happened, except for the offstage disappearance of Senator Joe and the inevitable episodes involving either amnesia or trial for murder (or both) that punctuated the lives of Sunday, Chichi, and the rest. When in the early 1950s, home from Cambridge, I dropped back in on soap opera—just in time to hear the final episode of Life Can Be Beautiful—everything had changed: Alcoholism, abortion, and adultery had barged in, the charm was gone, and the soaps were migrating to TV.

Soap opera was a special taste. Nighttime radio was for everyone. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Fibber McGee and Molly, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Bing Crosby, Lucky Strike’s Your Hit Parade, Information Please, Fanny Brice as Baby Snooks, were as pervasive as today’s top TV shows—more so, since there were fewer options. The big fight with your parents was whether you could have the radio on while you were doing your homework. They didn’t realize that you were also doing your homework in the late afternoons while tuned in to the kid shows: Captain Midnight, Little Orphan Annie, and my special passion, Jack Armstrong (“all-American boy”), another adventurer, often to be found deep in the Amazon jungles and also embedded in a family not his own (his sidekicks Billy and Betty and their Uncle Jim). Annie was by definition an orphan, as were Tarzan and Kipling’s Mowgli. More deracinated than any of these was my hero of heroes, the Lone Ranger, who not only needed no one in his life other than the faithful Tonto and the “great horse Silver” but was hidden behind a mask. I was also lucky enough to have been in on the birth and early exploits of the comic-book heroes Superman and Batman—also more or less loners, also masked, and also omnipotent. Comic books were anathema to parents, their brutality (“POW!” “Wham!”), and the desperate struggles of their heroes with avatars of Evil, presumably luring us middle-class kids into lives of violence if not crime.

All in all, it was a sweet popular culture, from the anodyne pop music to the daily “funnies,” which I didn’t get to see since The New York Times didn’t run any, and it was the only paper we got. So no Popeye, no Dick Tracy, no Li’l Abner. And almost no movies, although Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released when I was seven, was traumatic for me: I lay awake at night, terrified by the ravishingly beautiful—and murderous—Queen. There were also our household’s two essential magazines: Life and The New Yorker.

Even the “national sport,” baseball, which I followed eagerly, was benign. New York had three teams, and I was crazy about the Yankees (maybe because they usually won) and the Brooklyn Dodgers (maybe because they were so raffish). I loathed the Giants—who knows why? My family was utterly unaware of sports, although my father occasionally played golf; once and only once he made me walk around a golf course with him—the most boring afternoon I ever spent. My parents went to the theater occasionally, the movies rarely, out to dinner never. Sometimes we played gin rummy, but mostly, like me, my mother and father read.

My mother had had a genteel upbringing in Boston and New York on no money, her favorite novel George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. As a girl, she worked hard at the piano (Czerny exercises, the easier Beethoven sonatas), and she and her family loved going to the Met (Caruso, Farrar, Ponselle), sitting way up in the family circle. Because Grampa was an artist (unsuccessful), there were etchings and drawings and reproductions of paintings in our home, and as I grew older my mother took me to museums occasionally, and we went to hear the most famous musicians of the day—once each: Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, Marian Anderson, Toscanini. By the time I was in high school I had my own records—78s, back in those days. Most important were the famous Glyndebourne recordings of the Mozart operas, Wanda Landowska playing Bach’s Italian Concerto and The Goldberg Variations, and Caruso. And the big Romantic piano concertos—Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky. As for my own piano playing, I just didn’t practice enough—my ear was good, I was “musical,” I picked my way through simple Beethoven and Mozart, but alas I never applied myself seriously.

And there was Gilbert and Sullivan, whom we sang at home, my mother at the piano, and in three of whose works I drew attention to myself in summer camp: as Ko-Ko in The Mikado, Bunthorne in Patience, the Sergeant of the Police in The Pirates of Penzance. They had to let me play leads since I couldn’t or wouldn’t do much in the sports line except for Ping-Pong, which required agility, not strength. Awards were given out at the end of the summer, and there was nothing I could win an award for except acting, although one year I did get one for volleyball (which I had never once played). The last of my four years at Meadowbrook Lodge (in the Berkshires), I never once went down to the lake but lay on a blanket outside our bunk reading Norman Douglas’s scandalous South Wind—not that I understood what made it scandalous. Obviously, I was not made for summer camp, but what were my parents to do with me? My bunkmates, among them Eddie (later E. L.) Doctorow, seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I spent a lot of time during the early forties tracking the progress of the war on the huge fold-out maps that came with the National Geographic and that I taped to the walls of my bedroom. Somehow, in the summer of 1945, when I was fourteen, I arranged to have The New York Times delivered to me every day at camp and was jolted out of my self-absorption by the terrifying news of Hiroshima. Earlier that year, and even more frightening, had appeared pictures of the newly liberated death camps. For American kids with no relatives fighting, the war was essentially offstage, except for mild rationing and collecting silver foil and rubber bands for the war effort; for me, I suppose, it was a different kind of serial drama. Like the rest of the world, though, I was filled with anticipation about the Allied invasion of France, and when the news of D-day came over the radio on the morning of June 6, 1944, I rushed outside to buy all the morning papers. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

My mother’s cultured background must have been a major draw to my father, who came from a more typical immigrant family, with an Orthodox father who barely spoke English and spent his life studying the Talmud and with whom he did not get along. My father (Charles) made his own way out of Lower East Side poverty, going (the story persisted) to one high school by day and another by night so that he could start college (City College) sooner. Then on to NYU law school with the help of scholarships and what he could earn on the side. At college he fell in love with philosophy and poetry, founding a Thomas Gray society and determinedly shedding his Lower East Side speech and manner. He was hungry and driven (and good-looking), and my gentle and impressionable mother (Martha) was drawn to him like Desdemona to Othello. He didn’t, however, end up strangling her; stifling her naturally gregarious nature was as far as things went. Except for his mother, who had died well before I was born, he had little interest in or sympathy for his family, a family caught up in feuds and resentments. And my mother had no family on the scene either, except for her father. Nor did I have brothers or sisters—whatever money was available in the thirties was to be spent on little Bobby. We were an isolated group of three.

Even during Depression and post-Depression times, when funds were low, my father’s great extravagance was going to Brentano’s, America’s premier bookstore, across the street from his law office on Fifth Avenue, and indulging himself with half a dozen books, all nonfiction: the Holmes-Laski correspondence, Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, Karen Horney (whose theories appealed to him more than Freud’s), the writings of the famous CCNY philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen. Although we didn’t agree about much, he completely understood when one day when I was in college I called him in his office, a rare event, to say that I’d just seen a Brentano’s ad offering a two-volume boxed set of Proust for six dollars, and petitioning him to go across the street and acquire it for me. It was waiting for me the next time I came home from my dorm.

My mother, true to form, was always reading—old familiar books, books from the public library, and also books from what were known as lending libraries, usually located in stationery stores or drugstores, where for a dime or fifteen cents you could borrow the latest in fiction and nonfiction for three days. I myself, when I was in high school, belonged to three of them, and would read at least one new book a night in my obsessive need to have devoured every bestseller or potential bestseller within days of its publication. (Key to this obsession was my addiction to bestseller lists, which I followed fanatically, and which was due more, I think, to my obsession with statistics than to the books themselves.) I remember a crisis moment when two new novels—one the new Book-of-the-Month, the other the new Literary Guild selection—became available for borrowing the day before I was leaving for summer camp. (One was Margery Sharp’s Brittania Mews, the other, I think, by Daphne du Maurier.) I was up all night, leaving them for my mother to return the next day.

Given that books were the natural order of things in our family, it seemed reasonable to me that often the three of us would sit reading at the dinner table; only later did it occur to me that this was not normal, but a symptom of our particular brand of dysfunction. The way I read was odd, too: I more or less devoured books—skimming them rather than bringing them into focus line by line. (One particular attack of showing off, when I was fifteen or sixteen, involved “reading” War and Peace in a single marathon fourteen-hour session.) This kind of browsing was a habit I had to break when I became an editor: It was very useful for judging manuscripts quickly, but editing itself is a slow and laborious process, and in order to go at it properly, I had to change the way I read.

When I was ten or eleven, my parents decided I needed more fresh air than I was getting on the ninth floor of our apartment building on West Ninety-sixth Street, and I was commanded to spend at least one hour a day outside. We were only a few yards from Central Park, but nature had no appeal for me—it still doesn’t have much. There were a few kids on the block I could and sometimes did play cops and robbers with, but what was the point? I usually spent the prescribed hour standing next to the doorman, practicing with my yo-yo, until I could get back upstairs to my books and my radio. From the start, words were more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting.

As I was steeping myself in the art of the popular genre writers of the day—Thomas B. Costain (The Black Rose, The Silver Chalice), Frances Parkinson Keyes (Dinner at Antoine’s, Came a Cavalier), Samuel Shellabarger (Captain from Castile, Prince of Foxes), Frank Yerby (The Foxes of Harrow, A Woman Called Fancy)—I was also marching through the middlebrow writers (John P. Marquand, Pearl S. Buck, John O’Hara), the current literary heroes (Waugh, Orwell, Faulkner), and the classics: Balzac, Dickens, Hardy, Twain. My crucial literary experience of these pre-college years was my first reading of Emma, when I was sixteen. When Emma behaves so rudely to poor, harmless, talkative Miss Bates in the famous scene of the picnic on Box Hill, I was suffused with mortification: I had been forced to look at my own acts of carelessness and unkindness. Jane Austen had pinned me to the wall. It was the first time I really made the connection between what I was reading and my inner self. There was no religious instruction in my life, no guiding principles other than to work hard, and my mind was not a philosophical one. It was in the novel, beginning with Emma, that I would discover some kind of moral compass.


Copyright © 2016 by Robert Gottlieb