Sunday, September 25, 2022

Michael Dirda looks back at Book World’s roots in the Watergate era

Michael Dirda looks back at Book World's roots in the Watergate era

I was in my twenties when I first came to Book World in 1978. During the previous year, I’d written a half dozen reviews for Bill McPherson, who oversaw the section, and one day he asked if I might be interested in Assisting as an editor. He needed someone who could assign fiction, poetry, history and basically everything that wasn’t strictly political. I fit the bill.

Partly because I’d never worked at any newspaper before, everything about The Post struck me as magical. It was also surprisingly loud. In those days, each staffer’s cubicle held a telephone, a heavy metal Rolodex and a Selectric typewriter. The phones rang almost constantly in the open newsroom, and reporters wrote their stories on six-ply paper sheets, creating five copies of each page. One of those pages — called “takes” — would be scrolled up in a canister and sent via pneumatic tubes to the composing room. These paragraphs could then be turned into rows of metallic type using linotype machines.

In later years, compositors — we called them printers — would use heavy cardboard flats to create mock-ups of each page, a job strictly restricted to members of the printers’ guild. A dapper red-haired Englishman named Brian Jacomb always made up Book World’s pages while murmuring snatches of wisdom from old music-hall songs, such as “If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.” Once McPherson covertly repositioned some camera-ready art by himself and a foreman’s voice almost instantly rang out over the loudspeaker: “Down tools.”All work on the floor was stopped. A sheepish Bill was warned to never do that again.

The majority of the actors in the films are not Carl Bernstein. “All the President’s Men”And “The Post”They were still at the newspaper. Mrs. Graham — as Katharine Graham was always called — inspired awe, being the most patrician person I’d ever met; Ben Bradlee was ebullient and raffish; and the Op-Ed pages were looked after by the scarily intelligent Meg Greenfield. Herblock would always be interested in your opinion on his latest political cartoon, so if you happened to pass him in the corridor, he’d ask. After Don Graham took over as the paper’s publisher, he regularly practiced “management by walking around”Amazingly, he could greet each of the hundreds of employees by name. What’s more, whenever you would write something especially good, you’d find a complimentary note from Don in your mailbox.

Each week, a motley crew — the section’s editor in chief and four assistant editors — provided five daily reviews for Style and filled the 16 pages of the Sunday “tab,” a stand-alone magazine section. Besides individual reviews and roundups (of children’s books, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy), each issue required a fair amount of in-house writing: snappy headlines, paragraph descriptions for a half dozen titles in New in Paperback and New in Hardcover, a literary quiz called Book Bag, and hardcover and paperback bestseller lists compiled from sales numbers reported by local bookstores.

One long-ago September, I noticed works by various French thinkers — Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the like — occasionally cropping up on the list. Joe, a Francophile news aide, was charged with compiling this list. He decided that their works should become bestsellers and he made sure they were. Joe was as colorful as Brian. He would sit at attention when you called him to your desk and raise his fist in a Roman salute. “Yes, my liege.”

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I used to answer many Book Bag Questions, but the one I can recall was built around the close similarities in the names of Beatrix and Beatrix Potter, who were both the creators of “Peter Rabbit”Beatrice Potter, a Fabian socialist, who was married to Beatrice Webb. I was called into Richard Harwood’s office by the gruff Monday morning after that question. Assistant managing editor, who oversaw several sections, including Book World. Former Marine. “Left-for-dead-on-Iwo-Jima” Harwood — as he was fondly referred to — complained that the quiz had gotten too hard, too obscure. “Dirda, I want questions like ‘Mary had a little,’ followed by a blank that people can fill in.” I nodded acquiescently, but didn’t make the questions any easier.

In those days, every major publisher would send us proofs and reviews, which were then filed in the Book Room by publication month. Each afternoon, after the day’s mail delivery, its floor would be covered ankle-deep in padded envelopes and small boxes. They were frequently trampled without any thought. What’s more, any book with “good art”We might be subjected to mutilation if they needed an illustration for the review. I am a bibliophile and found it horrendous to cut pictures from books. However, newspaper work can be hard on the most sensitive of souls. Kunio Francis Tanabe was our art director. I was the one who carried the X-ACTO knife.

Each Monday, Book World’s staff would gather to thrash out the contents of the upcoming issue, argue about what should go on the front and, after discussing possible books for review, lament that publishing wasn’t what it once was. In assigning, we either telephoned or — yes, children — wrote actual letters to possible reviewers. Ross Thomas, a thriller writer, answered his phone every second ring and sent in flawless copy. He was trustworthy and a true professional. We might ask Stephen King to write a piece about Robert Ludlum, which he did in a horrific evisceration, or arrange for Salman Rushdie’s piece when he was in. You can hide from an Islamic fatwa or have a conversation between Joseph Heller (or Mel Brooks) about your childhood reading. We also tried out promising new authors. In 1981, I assigned Mary Robison’s “Oh!”David Remnick, a Post intern, is now the editor at the New Yorker.

In those turbulent years after Watergate, I was a regular seeker of older writers to review my writing. I once spent 45 minutes talking with Christopher Isherwood, a novelist, about W.H. Auden, flattered Sir Harold Acton — the dedicatee of Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall” — into reviewing books on the Brideshead generation, solicited pieces from Malcolm Cowley and Morley Callaghan, who had both been expats in Paris during the 1920s, and persuaded Robert Penn Warren to send us a poem.

I was a contemporary of Ned Rorem and Guy Davenport who were both polymaths and classicists, as well as Angela Carter, Robertson Davies, Gilbert Sorrentino, Robertson Davies, and Bernard Knox. I remember that Angela — we became telephone friends — verged on mockery in her review of Gabriel García Márquez’s much lauded “Love in the Time of Cholera.”Roald Dahl, who somehow refused my honeyed words did mention that Ed McBain was his favorite American writer, the creator of the 87th Precinct Police procedurals. Toni Morrison and Roald Dahl grew up together. I was able, through Toni Morrison, to talk Toni into writing a piece about Jean Toomer.

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My proudest accomplishment during those first years of Book World was the monthly science and fantasy column. It was initiated by Joanna Russ (an old friend and author who wrote the feminist classic). “The Female Man,”I was given a lot of guidance. Soon, no other mainstream newspaper could match our coverage. Theodore Sturgeon, the legendary Theodore Sturgeon, reviewed the young Thai writer S.P. Somtow. We ran an “Ode on the Death of Philip K. Dick,”by Thomas M. Disch, sf great. George R.R. Martin scribbled long before for Book World “A Game of Thrones”John Crowley and Ursula K. Le Guin became favorite and frequent reviewers of any kind. The best part was when Gene Wolfe completed “The Book of the New Sun,” John Clute’s account of the final volume, “The Citadel of the Autarch,”He deserved the top spot and got it.

Washington has always been a major book city. For a big spread in Weekend, David Streitfeld — then Book World’s nonpareil publishing correspondent, now a business reporter for the New York Times — and I visited and briefly described 35 secondhand bookshops in the greater metro area. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan hosted a party up on the Hill. That evening, I had a memorable time arguing about Ezra Pound alongside Bernard Malamud (novelist) and James Jesus Angleton (CIA spymaster). My wife and me lived in the same apartment block as Mary McGrory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist. Once, when I was off to the laundry room with a basket of dirty clothes, the elevator opened and there stood Teddy Kennedy and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, both on their way to Mary’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.

Book World was always looking for new ways to keep the section alive. We ran a series of pieces that tracked how a book was made. One example was the one where Leo and Diane Dillon shared their secrets for dust-jacket illustration. We even dedicated entire issues to off-trail subjects like home maintenance. I reviewed seven to eight manuals on plumbing-repair. Back in the 80s, another theme issue presciently focused on comicsAnd included pieces on the Hernandez Brothers, Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” and “Watchmen.”

Unrelentingly, each year our seasonal specials, geared to children’s books, winter holidays, and vacation reading, demanded fresh crowd-pleasing features. For one summer reading issue, I asked John Sutherland — an expert on popular fiction — for an annotated list of the 20 worst or kitschiest books that had become 20th-century best sellers. “At No. 19,”Sutherland wrote, “I nominate the vulgarest novel I have ever read, Judith Krantz’s 1991 bestseller, ‘Dazzle.’ ”This was a wonderful surprise to me. I had already begun my own review of the novel: “I read ‘Dazzle’ in one sitting. I had to. I was afraid I couldn’t face picking it up again.”

As children’s book editor, I started asking various writers to recall their childhood reading in, for instance, Argentina (Alberto Manguel), India (Shashi Tharoor) and the Soviet Union (Cathy Young). Perhaps Book World’s most popular feature, “Rediscoveries,”looked at books that were undeservedly neglected. This was primarily the work of Noel Perrin, who assembled his essays in “A Reader’s Delight”). Marie Arana, Book World editor, did a wonderful series of interviews with authors, which was eventually published as “The Writing Life,” while the Library of Congress’s poets laureate — Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky — wrote infectiously about their favorite poems in “Poet’s Choice.”

My editors tells me to stop. Still, this has been the shallowest of dives into Book World’s early history and much has had to be left out (some of it scandalous — those were the days!). What’s more, I’ve no doubt that my former colleagues — only a few of whom I was able to mention — would tell different and better stories. It is a fact that the Sunday tab was discontinued publication in 2009. Book coverage was split between Style and Outlook. This arrangement has remained for many years. But with this issue of Book World, its editors — John Williams, Stephanie Merry, Steven Levingston, Nora Krug and Jacob Brogan — with the help of critic Ron Charles and office manager Becky Meloan relaunch a stand-alone Sunday section. They’re even letting me stick around to be part of the fun. Come join us.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at Book World and the author of the memoir “An Open Book,”The Edgar Award-winning “On Conan Doyle”There are five collections of essays. “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book,” “Classics for Pleasure”And “Browsings.”

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