Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: Michael Dirda and Book World, pt. 1

By Eric Banks

The Times LIterary Supplement has been publishing an excellent series of columns this summer by Michael Dirda about his career at Washington Post Book World. Critical Mass thanks the TLS and Michael Dirda for the kind opportunity to republish them.

Thirty or so years ago, with my usual prescience, I could see that computers were going nowhere. At the time, I was a young technical writer for the grandly named Scientific Time-Sharing Corporation, where I worked mainly on manuals instructing banks in the use of sophisticated financial planning systems. Given a genetic inability to balance even a checkbook, coupled with overall bewilderment whenever I would then sit down at a keyboard and monitor, the subsequent Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980s didn't precisely come as a surprise. I knew who to blame.

It struck me on that long-ago afternoon, as I sat in my windowless cubicle and brooded over the mysteries of debits and credits, that my true destiny lay in book reviewing. Edmund Wilson! Cyril Connolly! Mes semblables, mes frères! I should work for a major newspaper, a great metropolitan daily, join an ancient and nobly raffish fraternity. Already I could imagine myself shouting into payphones: “Get me rewrite, sweetheart!” or “Stop the presses!”. Why a book reviewer would be doing this didn't cross my mind. Virtually everything I then knew about newspapers derived from a viewing of The Front Page when I was about ten.

The next day I composed a letter of Ciceronian eloquence directed to the editor of Book World, the literary section of the Washington Post. After establishing my overall lack of credentials, I boldly said I would phone to set up an appointment for an interview the following Monday. The appointed day came, I called, and Book World's formidable secretary, Ednamae Storti, patiently explained that I should just go away.

I glumly hung up, but then quickly rebounded like some indomitable hero out of Dumas: “The Post's loss will be the New Republic's gain!” At which point, the phone rang, it was Book World's editor and he would, in fact, like to talk to me. I'll never forget that first glimpse of my future home. Pillars of books leaning against walls. Ziggurats of uncorrected page proofs. In a so-called “book room”, dozens of padded mailers had simply been dumped in the middle of the floor. I watched with horror, and secret pleasure, as the art editor trampled through this pile of authorial hopes and dreams, reached up to a shelf for a sumptuous art book, opened it, and with samurai-like elegance sliced out a glossy page. “For art”, he explained, as he lowered his X-Acto knife and waded back to his desk. Meanwhile, telephones kept ringing all around the newsroom, Selectric typewriters clacked steadily, and in the distance I could hear what I later came to recognize as the anguished keening of reporters forced to participate in the heartless butchery of their deathless prose by crude and insensitive copy-editors.

Over coffee, the editor Bill McPherson chatted amiably about the myriad horrors of the literary life. Our conversation did seem to flag a little when I mentioned my grad school courses in medieval literature and European Romanticism. Perhaps there wouldn't be much demand for a reappraisal of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis or a fresh take on Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen. But McPherson promised to send me a book – one of these days.

Months went by. Then one Friday the phone on my desk at STSC rang. Could I produce a brief notice – 250 words – about a young adult novel, really a kind of fable or fairy tale, called In the Suicide Mountains? It was by John Gardner, best known for the novel Grendel, which tells the story of Beowulf from the monsters' point of view. I had never read a word of Gardner, but did I pause to consider whether I was the right person for this book? Not for a second. With the aplomb that characterizes journalists the world over, I answered, “I could do that”. The book – delivered by courier – was waiting when I got home. Through some inadvertence, no review slip had been included with the package, and I could only guess when my brief notice was needed. I couldn't even call to check, as the weekend had started. There seemed but one truly safe course of action. I read the book that night, spent all day Saturday crafting, as they say in writing schools, 250 words of sonnet-like perfection, then typed up the result on my Hermes portable with a fresh black ribbon. In those pre–Homeland Security days, the main DC post office near Union Station was open until midnight.

I drove down and posted my review that Saturday evening at around ten.

As I was eventually to learn all too well, every literary editor expects to receive a plaintive call from almost every reviewer, begging for a few extra days and sounding for all the world like one of the more piteous characters in Dickens. But In the Suicide Mountains had gone out on Friday and my brief notice was on Ednamae's desk the very next working day. The section's editors claimed to like the review (they always do, even when they don't), the art director Francis Tanabe eventually used my suggested illustration, and everyone kept talking about the turnaround time. In those days, Book World usually allowed a reviewer three or four weeks, sometimes more when dealing with academics. McPherson was particularly excited by my review. Well, not so much by my review, which was “fine, really quite fine”, but with the paper it was typed on. The parchmentlike sheets were thick and cream-coloured, milled in Italy, and you could see laid lines and a watermark when you held a sheet up to the light. A prints and drawings conservator – to whom I was shrewdly married – had given it to me when I'd asked her for some really cool paper for my first Post assignment. Bill, I could see, coveted that paper.

Graham Greene wrote, at the beginning of The Third Man, that one never knows when the blow will fall. But neither does one know when good fortune will flow down upon one like unexpected grace. “Bill”, I said, “this paper – I just might be able to get you a ream of it.” I may have been a working-class kid from Ohio but I hadn't read all those Balzac novels for nothing. Soon afterwards I received another review assignment, for 750 words. Then another and still another. A screwball comedy by Paul Monette, who would later die of AIDS. A collection of essays by the poet Howard Nemerov. A generational saga about a West Virginia mining family by John Knowles.

When I had filed my eighth or ninth piece, I was casually invited to lunch at the Madison Hotel, where the conversation turned to a possible opening at Book World, an assistant editor's job. Might I be interested? Thirty years ago, newspaper pages were still laid out with a pica ruler and a sizing wheel. By 2009 the world had changed. Early that year the Post decided to close Book World as a discrete tabloid and disperse reviews to the Style and Outlook sections of the paper. Computers, it seemed, had gone somewhere after all.