Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pages, $28. This is easily one of the most eagerly awaited books of 2016 for a certain readership. It is also, for that readership, one of the most compellingly readable – and important. And with all of that it is disappointing in a very odd way.
Robert Gottlieb was, far and away, the most exalted book editor of the late 20th century. The stamp of his editorial work on so much of the great literature of his time is so indelible that it is by no means hyperbole to say that what Maxwell Perkins was for the ’20s and ’30s, Gottlieb was for the century’s closing years and new century. The list of his accomplishments could go on for days: midwifery on Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and “Something Happened,” talking John Cheever into a “Collected Stories,” and working with Jessica Mitford, Toni Morrison, Bill Clinton, Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullman, Doris Lessing, William Gaddis, Robert Caro, Katharine Hepburn and Nora Ephron, among many others. (Ephron and family stayed with the Gottliebs during her divorce from Carl Bernstein.) Gottlieb was also the one Si Newhouse famously turned to when legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn was separated from the editorial job that had made him a legend.
Tales told out of school tumble forth here: Pauline Kael visiting Gottlieb at home and insulting most of his family, Penelope Gilliatt’s alcoholism requiring an intervention (which wasn’t successful), Roald Dahl’s “churlish” behavior toward Knopf’s staff, including tantrums and “anti-Semitic undertones.” The list could go on. And with all of that, all of the tales limn everyone’s professional lives with personal matters incidental. The oddity is that there is nothing that really resembles true portraiture, despite the spectacular roster of Gottlieb’s writers; there’s no sense of anyone’s physical presence, whether face or body or voice or whatever. His own editor may have been too cowed to suggest it, just as that editor seems to have been so cowed that Gottlieb once refers pointlessly to “Saint Louis” rather than “St. Louis.” No one expected a “tell-all.” But I didn’t expect a book seemingly written just for the record above all, either. –Jeff Simon