Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: Michael Dirda and Book World, pt. 2

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, which we're pleased to post on Critical Mass. Our thanks to the TLS and to Michael Dirda for the kind opportunity to republish them. To read the first installment, click here.

When I began to work at the Washington Post Book World thirty-odd years ago, I quickly realized that I would never again read purely for my own pleasure. That time was over. Books were now my job. Every weekday morning I'd take the bus downtown, being careful to put on a tie. To be a young newspaperman in those days you didn't need a Brooks Brothers suit, you didn't need a blazer and pressed slacks, you didn't even need a white dress shirt, but you absolutely had to wear a tie, usually slightly loosened at the neck, with an unbuttoned collar. It was the Woodward and Bernstein look, made famous by the recent film of All the President's Men. On cloudy days you'd add a tan trench coat, preferably one with epaulettes and a belt you could knot with casual sprezzatura.

Since the Book World offices abutted the Sports department, our corner of the newsroom was pretty quiet in the mornings. They don't play baseball at 10 am. But later in the afternoon, the scribes next door would erupt into jeering and angry disputations, as they compared that day's game stats with some Yankees-Indians match back in 1948. Sometimes I'd run into Shirley Povich, still writing in his eighties, a man who'd covered the World Series in the 1920s, who had seen Babe Ruth standing at the plate.

To be important at a newspaper you really should write about sports or, failing that, politics or business. Everything else is just soft news, and in those days no department was softer than the book review section. Well, maybe, fashion and design. Of course, every so often hitherto taciturn reporters or haughty op-ed columnists would suddenly start a conversation in the cafeteria checkout line, at which point you knew that they were bringing out a book of their own. A surprising number produced novels.

As a boy, I had read books with the usual poor-kid-with-big-dreams voraciousness. As a student, I had wandered awestruck through great university libraries. But only when I came to man's estate – and to Book World – did I grasp the crucial importance of thirty-six-copy dump bins and half-a-million dollar advances. Writing might be an art, but publishing was a business. I soon recognized that Knopf brought out the classiest hardcovers; Farrar Straus and Giroux the most literary. You could always tell a Doubleday genre title by its cheap binding and paper. The best poetry collections were those designed by Harry Ford for Atheneum. Inevitably, any serious presidential candidate produced a campaign promises book, and every former president brought out his memoirs. Sometimes you might know the hacks who actually wrote them. Then, as now, received wisdom had it that Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates could type faster than anyone could read. Publishers Weekly was always speculating that the paperback original would one day replace the hardback.

On those long-ago mornings, I would generally slump down at my desk by the streaky windows overlooking L Street, sip my coffee, and stare lugubriously at a pile of uncorrected page proofs. For many years, my friend and colleague Reid Beddow would peer over the low wall between our cubicles, glance at my clutter and cheerily say, “Well, Dirda, I've assigned all my books.” Eight hours later, at precisely five o'clock, Reid would look up from his tidy work space and announce with feigned surprise, “I believe I've reached a convenient breakpoint.” He'd then race for the elevator, murmuring “Tim, I'm coming.” Tim was his Irish setter.

There was, of course, great joy in being a bookish assistant book editor. I could telephone or write to anyone, and even the most distinguished scholars and authors would take my call, respond to my query. One day I received in the same post a letter from Sir John Pope-Hennessy, agreeing to review a new edition of Vasari's Lives, and one from Sir Harold Acton, accepting an offer to write about Evelyn Waugh. Isaac Asimov always answered the phone himself; secretaries, he said, just slowed you down. Toni Morrison – then just starting out as a novelist – sometimes reminisced with me about Lorain, Ohio, the steel town in which we both grew up. Christopher Isherwood happily regaled me for an hour with anecdotes about W. H. Auden. Once, while covering incoming calls, Book World's latest copy aide grew even more flustered than usual: “It's some guy named Kinslow Ames calling,” she said. “He sounds kind of mean.” It took me a moment to realize that the author of Lucky Jim was on the line. Still another copy aide, whenever asked to pick up the mail or perform some clerical task, would always bow his head slightly, form a fist with his right hand and then smack himself on the left side of his chest, as he intoned, “Yes, my liege.”

My favorite part of being at Book World lay in matching reviewers to books. Elmore Leonard confessed that he was tired of being asked to review gritty crime novels, so I talked him into writing about the latest Anita Brookner. To my surprise, Angela Carter didn't much like Gabriel Gárcia Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, nor did the very young David Foster Wallace care for Clive Barker. With help from our secretary Ednamae Storti, I tracked down a retired Boston University history professor named Warren Ault to review two books about T. E. Lawrence. He and Lawrence had made brass rubbings together at Oxford. Alas, the professor died quietly in his sleep the night before his review appeared. Ault was 102. But he had seen his piece in proof.

No matter how shapely the essay, at a newspaper it's always just copy. If Style has space, with art, for twenty-two column inches and the Wednesday book review clocks in at twenty-five, the dailies editor would circle certain sentences or even an entire paragraph and mark it CBK: Can Be Killed. For my first few years, in-house copy would often be typed on six-ply paper for distribution to various editors. One of these pages or “takes” would always be whisked downstairs to linotype operators through pneumatic tubes, the last paragraph sometimes accompanied by the scribbled note “Hed to follow,” meaning the headline would be forthcoming. One night the cut-ups in Sports swiped a reporter's pork-pie hat, stuffed it in a pneumatic tube and sent it to engraving with the message “Head to follow.”

Book World's actual headline sessions could be just as silly, as the section's ethnically and sexually diverse staff generated one giddily obscene or politically incorrect suggestion after another. For a book on the terrorist Jewish Defense League, we didn't use “Torah! Torah! Torah!”; for Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, we immediately quashed “A Chink in Her Armor.” Still, I do possess a copy of Dr Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, lavishly inscribed in magic marker: “For Mike, Thanks for getting me the crack cocaine in Boston. Your friend Hunter.” It was, of course, just one of the incorrigible Thompson's usual jokes – or so I always say.