Review: ‘Avid Reader’ by Robert Gottlieb

Avid Reader: A LifeAvid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about “Avid Reader.”

You’d think Robert Gottlieb would have a rich life to draw from in his memoir: a Manhattan childhood; an early, perfect job as an editor at Simon & Schuster; an even more perfect job as the editor-in-chief at Knopf; editor of the New Yorker; and relationships with dozens of the century’s most famous writers, including Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Caro, Joseph Heller and John le Carre.

But, to steal a line from another review on Goodreads, Gottlieb could have used a good editor.

“Avid Reader” starts out reasonably, with Gottlieb’s descriptions of his distant parents and his experiences at Columbia and Cambridge. There are hints of joy, stray bits of sadness (a rushed first marriage in particular) and the confidence of a man who, once he finds his course, plans to follow it with energy and devotion.

Which, frankly, he does. But he leaves the rest of us behind.

The problem, to me, is in Gottlieb’s bloodless style. “Avid Reader” reads like one of those drippy Bob Colacello Vanity Fair articles about wealthy WASPs or European nobility, with the tone of an overly pleased man who wishes to convey how wonderful life is for his elite friends while avoiding making any waves so he can get invited to the next party or return unscathed to his comfortable life.

So everybody is dear and talented and handsome and admirable and interesting and charming, and his family and their families spend vacations together, and he’s been friends with them for 20 years, or 30 years, or 40 years, or until they die, at which point he gives a pleasant eulogy.

Even his critiques come off as quibbles: Michael Crichton “wasn’t a very good writer,” more interested in machines than people; Katharine Hepburn was needy; William Shawn was sad. (He does get in a sharp poke at Shawn’s mistress, Lillian Ross, whose book “Here but not Here” “embarrassed everybody but herself.”) This is generous of Gottlieb – and Lord knows I’d rather have a kind-hearted observer like him than an axe-grinder like Michael Wolff – but the overall effect is breezy and shallow, with no details on how he figured out advances and print runs, shaved words from “Something Happened,” or dealt with most of the New Yorker writers.

He does offer useful glimpses of many people, but they’re just that: glimpses, like brief scenes caught from a fast-moving train.

It’s not like Gottlieb doesn’t have material to work with. At one point he underwent classical Freudian analysis, visiting an analyst four times a week. But he reveals little and when his therapy is done, so is he with the subject.

Or his occasional trips with pretty assistants. These are all platonic, he says, and I have no reason to doubt him; his wife, he mentions at one point, doesn’t like to travel. (And they’ve been married for more than 40 years.) But he’s almost too casual in the way he brings it all up. And as for his long marriage, about the only rough times we’re exposed to have to do with his son, who’s on the spectrum. But even that works out after a few pages. No guidance, few musings, little pain.

No soul-baring, in other words, for better or for worse.

I wish I could be more generous about “Avid Reader.” I still admire Gottlieb’s work – the list of the books he edited would make an excellent course on 20th-century literature. And the book is certainly well written. But it may have been better served as a magazine article (ironically, it was condensed to one in Vanity Fair) or an appearance on a talk show.

Even there, Gottlieb would probably fall far short of one of his mentions, the raconteur Alexander King – though, given the usual seven minutes and three anecdotes, few would notice. The short form may have been the best form for “Avid Reader.”

Sorry, Mr. Gottlieb. May I suggest you talk to Terry McDonell?

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