Showing posts with label Frankfurt Bookfair. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frankfurt Bookfair. Show all posts

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Publishing Roots and Anecdotes

There was a time in my life when reading professional books and journals was nearly a full time job onto itself, especially when I was starting out in my career.  The books seemed to come first and then the journals, particularly Publishers Weekly and it's UK counterpart, The Bookseller.  Added to the mix were academic and library publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, and a number of related newsletters.  Weekends and nights were reserved for professional reading.

Now retired, I haven't read a professional book in years, although I try keep my eye on the publishing industry via the Web.  Nonetheless I've been remiss; it was only recently that I came across a book published some four years ago, a very important one to me and, I think, to the history of publishing, Immigrant Publishers: The Impact of Expatriate Publishers in Britain and America in the 20th Century (Transaction Publishers, 2009).  One of the co-editors, Richard Abel, was the founder of Richard Abel and Co., a major bookseller to academic and research libraries during my career.  Perhaps not too coincidentally, the book was published by Transaction Publishers which was headed by the late Irving Louis Horowitz, a sociologist who was a great publisher in his own right, publishing important works that others would have deemed too unprofitable to tackle.  I competed with Horowitz at times for authors but we had a cordial relationship.

Naturally, I was able to access large chunks of the book on Google Books but through one of Amazon's "partners" I was able to buy a new copy, still shrink wrapped for half the price.  Probably this was a review copy that had been sold.  Some things never change.  I wanted the hard cover for my collection of publishing books, particularly as it covers my own publishing roots.

Immigrant Publishers portrays a number of individuals I knew, worked with, and/or competed with.  For me personally, the most influential person was Walter J. Johnson, who was my first employer at the Johnson Reprint Division of Academic Press.  He was my "accidental mentor" and I would like to think that some of his better attributes, his intensely productive and entrepreneurial nature, became part of my working demeanor and without that subliminal tutelage, my career might have been very different. 

Two chapters are devoted to Walter Johnson, one by Edwin Beschler covering Johnson and his brother in law / partner Kurt Jacoby and their flight from Nazi dominated Europe to New York (with various stops between), establishing Academic Press (AP) in 1942. Johnson arrived with his wife, Thekla, after he had spent some time in a concentration camp but won his release. The other chapter is by Albert Henderson covering Johnson Reprint Corporation (JRC), run exclusively by Johnson (as was Walter J. Johnson, Inc., his antiquarian firm) and JRC's trailblazing accomplishments in the world of scholarly reprints.  I vaguely knew Beschler who was an AP editor but I worked closely with Henderson. 

Walter Johnson was an enigma to me when I joined the firm in 1964, straight out of college, winding up in the Production Department of JRC. On the one hand he could be charming, even endearing, but he also managed his businesses through fear and divisiveness, and constantly displayed a high level of distrustfulness.  But it was "justified paranoia" given his path to the United States (along with other publishers covered in the book) to escape (just barely) the encroaching threat of Nazi ideology inspired genocide (a fate of many of the family members of Johnson, nee' Jolowicz, changing his name and his religion "to never again be victimized"). 

Henderson recounts a meeting in the conference room of JRC which perfectly illustrates Johnson's suspicious personality, one that I also attended. It was a meeting called by my immediate boss, Fred Rappaport (another important influence on my career who is still a friend of ours after all these years).  Johnson was out of town but had placed a call to Fred waiting impatiently on the phone while the switchboard operators attempted to locate him.  At first they were unable to find him, until he was finally traced to the conference room. Johnson was incredulous and furious -- "what do you mean having a meeting without me?" -- you could hear Fred desperately trying to defend himself.

I also vividly remember another incident when Johnson stormed into the accounting department which was opposite my production department.  He was again furious, yelling at the accounting manager (whose name I've forgotten).  He picked up a calculator from a nearby desk (bear in mind, a 1960's calculator would weigh in at almost 40 pounds). raised it over his head, and smashed it to the floor, storming out of the department, leaving stunned silence in his wake. 

Yet, I had a different relationship with him.  He could never quite figure me out.  If he needed someone to come in all day Saturday to work on an "emergency" production project, normally no one would volunteer, something he pretty much expected (I think some of those projects were "tests", simply to demonstrate his willingness to be in on a Saturday while no one else was).  Well, in each and every case I said OK, I'll come in.  He eyed me suspiciously.  You want to come in to work?  Sure, I said.  (Actually, I needed the overtime -- my first wife was pregnant and about to retire from her lowly paying job -- and as I was on the clock early in my career, overtime was a gift.)

So I would see Walter in the office some Saturdays early in my career, and he began to depend on me to handle the  more difficult reprint projects.  Which leads to one of my favorite Johnson stories.  One such "rush" project (the rush was always to beat Kraus Reprint to the punch), was a large serial set of some public domain title, involving scores of volumes.  We needed to get 50 complete sets out of Arnold's Book Bindery (in Reading PA ASAP) and towards that end (and for other projects as well), I had to go to Arnolds from time to time on a small plane from Newark Airport.  I was also in frequent contact with them via phone from the office (remember, this is thirty years before emails and twenty before faxes).

Well, one of Johnson's favorite "management techniques" was to monitor activities through the two  Doberman Pinschers he had as receptionists/telephone operators. (There was no direct dial long distance -- all such calls had to be placed through the operators.) One morning I had to speak to Arnolds about that rush project and I asked one of the watch dogs to place the call and she said no.  I said, no? What do you mean?  And she said, Mr. Johnson said no long distance phone calls without his personal approval because our long distance bills were getting too high, goodbye.  I saw red and I grabbed the entire file on the project (everything was on paper of course so these files could be several inches thick), and I levitated (at least it seemed to me) down the stairs (his office was on the 10th floor, mine on the 11th) which meant passing the dogs at the desk (who smilingly glared at me, relishing their brief moment of power) and I approached Johnson's office, which had two doors, one from the hallway which had a red light over it and if the light was lit it meant he was in a meeting (the light was on that day) and could not be disturbed, and the other door from the editorial department (where Al Henderson was sitting).  I went through the editorial department and threw open Johnson's door and indeed he was meeting with some people I didn't know, and as I entered, he started to mutter, slightly outraged,  Bob, what is this?  I slammed the file on his desk and said, you want the books, you call Arnold's Bookbindery!  I walked out to the refrains of Bob, Bob, Bob! following my back out the door.

Of course by the time I returned to my office the thought occurred to me that I better start packing up my personal stuff as probably I'd be losing my job that very day.  Indeed, ten minutes later he called and demanded that I come back to the office, which I did.  But there he was at the switchboard castigating (mostly for my benefit) the Dobermans at the desk, saying over and over again "I didn't mean Bob!"  Although it was a vivid illustration of his divisive management techniques, I also think the incident was a lesson for him that his rough tactics did not intimidate me.  From then on, I never had any difficulty with him and if anything,  he treated me solicitously.

There was no question that Johnson was a brilliant publisher, from a publishing family, and Academic Press and Johnson Reprint, addressed a real need for scientific and academic information, producing new research material and bringing back out of print works to fulfill the insatiable appetite for such information, particularly by libraries who at that time enjoyed very lucrative government funded budgets. 

Although I learned a lot from my "accidental mentor" my relationship with Johnson and his firm was doomed as I had learned everything I could in production, moved on to head up the editorial department, and even though he named me an "Assistant Vice President" in November 1969, I could see the handwriting on the wall when Harcourt Brace Jovanovich entered the picture at the end of that decade.  I was solicited by a start-up competitor, Greenwood Press, headed by Harold Mason, a librarian who had briefly worked for Johnson's antiquarian division.  Johnson offered me raises, promotions, anything to keep me from the competition.  What he could not offer me was any kind of career path into original publishing, which is where I was trying to take some new JRC programs, but Harcourt blocked the way and even Academic Press was moving into the humanities and the social sciences where I was trying to go with their new "Seminar Press" (which Harcourt squashed anyhow).

My soon-to-be new wife, Ann, headed up customer service for JRC and Johnson's knee jerk reaction was to be suspicious of her -- she remaining at JRC while I went to a competitor.  He called her into his office to be interrogated and in the end we both had to assure him of the ethical standards we both adhered to and remarkably he accepted it.  As it turned out, it was only a couple years later that JRC was closed in spite of Bill Jovanovich's reassurances of continuing everything as before.  My decision was the right one and within a few years I was President of Greenwood Press and as I said, I would like to think that the better aspects of Walter's work ethic materialized in my own management techniques. 

At first we had little contact, but later he begrudgingly acknowledged my career progress and we used to chat regularly at Frankfurt, long after he left Academic but remained the largest shareholder of Harcourt which purchased Academic in 1969.  I think Ann and I were among the very few former employees at his funeral service in 1996, his working until he died at the age of 88, on the day of my 54th birthday.

Whereas Johnson had his redeeming virtues, another "publishing expatriate" that I dealt with during my career, Robert Maxwell, seemed to have none.  In fact he very much reminded me of Walter, but without the charm. He too ruled those who let him by fear and intimidation.  I had the unpleasant and totally unscheduled task of "debating" him -- I think it was 1972 or 1973 -- at one of the American Library Association's annual meetings

His company, Pergamon Press and ours were both caught up in heady days of microfiche reproduction of public domain government documents.  We had been filming all the Congressional Hearings to 1969 and we had rolled out a similar program for municipal documents.  Both Pergamon and Greenwood had started to tackle State Documents, so we were head to head competitors although both programs were still in their formative stages.  Each company had produced promotional literature describing its forthcoming program and the American Library Association had asked us to speak about them at one of their government documents sessions.  The editor of our program, however, was also the editor of our municipal project and he discovered, sort of at the last minute, that he had a conflicting speaking engagement about the municipal documents program and as that was much further along (and perhaps he didn't relish the thought of taking on Robert Maxwell who was to speak on behalf of Pergamon), I was thrown to the sharks with only a couple hours notice.  I had written the promotion piece myself so I was familiar with many of the details, but not all.  In any event, there I was, a thirty year old utterly inexperienced public speaker, having to face someone whose public speaking ability was legendary,  a former Member of Parliament with a booming voice, whose reputation preceded him.

The dreaded time finally arrived and I was shocked at the sea of faces attending this meeting, maybe a couple of hundred, a far larger crowd than I imagined.  Perhaps Maxwell was the draw and he was invited to speak first.  OK I said to myself, that will give me time to prepare any rejoinders if I need them.  He stood at the podium and held up the very brochure I wrote (not his own), the cover of which heralded "Solve All Your State Documents Problems -- acquisitions, claims, checking-in, cataloging, binding, shelving, retrieval." He silently held it up (it seemed like hours to me, but it was only for about 15 seconds) waving it back and forth so all could see.  (It was a June meeting, in Detroit as I recall. I had worn a Haspel Wash and Wear suit and I could feel the sweat trickling down my back.  I felt certain that pits of stain were forming under my arms.  Why was he holding up our brochure, not saying anything?)  Suddenly, in his bass English voice he boomed "Huckster!"  I blinked in astonishment (never having been called a huckster before, but thinking it must take one to know one).  He then went on tearing our program apart, saying nearly nothing about their own.  In a way it didn't surprise me, given his reputation and given both programs were "announcements" and in fact did not yet exist.  Easier to criticize ours than say something about their own.  He looked at me sitting in the first row with every thrust of his voice.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of my verbal whipping, it was my turn. I remembered the fear of whether my anxiety-induced sweat would be evident on my way up to the podium.  The crowd was clearly agitated by the tension Maxwell had created, some librarians uncomfortable about a verbal confrontation between the two of us.  Well, they didn't have to worry about me as I knew there was no way I could win that battle.  Maxwell knew it too and the smirk on his face showed his pleasure at having me where he wanted me.  

So instead of saying anything about the attack he levied, or defending our program in any way, or, forbid, attacking his, I basically went about my business of explaining our program, how it would work, the tentative nature of it at that point, and we would be eager to have their input as to the directions we should take.  In other words, I completely ignored Maxwell, as if he had never spoken.  Afterwards, librarians came up to me to thank me for not responding in kind. 

Any future contact between Maxwell and myself was confined to merely passing by one another in the aisles of Frankfurt or some other ALA meetings, one not acknowledging the other.  He died a mysterious death, presumably having fallen off his yacht in the Atlantic, after which it was discovered he had raided his company's pension fund to keep his publishing empire floating.

Another publisher profiled in the book is Fred Praeger whose parents failed to escape Nazi Germany and died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, leaving a profound impact on Fred.  He ultimately formed Praeger Publishers and, with the help of CIA funds, began to publish the very successful "Special Studies" series that was squarely aimed at the threat of the Soviet Union.  One of his early successes was the publication of Milovan Djilas' The New Class which sold 50,000 copies, a work I had read in college and have a copy on my bookshelf ever since. 

In fact, to digress somewhat, many of these "immigrant publishers" shared a kind of Ayn Rand prospective on business and viewed any totalitarian regime with revulsion, particularly the Soviet Union at the time. I remember an amusing anecdote involving Walter Johnson in that regard.  On November 9, 1965 I was waiting for the elevator on the 11th Floor of 111 Fifth Avenue.  It was about 5.20 PM and out the window in front of the elevators, I was gazing north at the top of the Empire State Building as darkness gathered but the city and the Empire State were still ablaze in lights.  Suddenly those lights started to go out until the city was in darkness, the elevators had stopped and all lights in the building were extinguished.  I asked if anyone had a flashlight. No, no one did.  Then, I made my way downstairs in the dark to the 10th Floor.  Surely, I thought,  Mr. Johnson would know where there was a flashlight and perhaps what was going on.  He was frantic, listening to a portable radio and indeed, he had a flashlight and offered to lead everyone down the eleven flights to the street.  I remember going down the stairs with Mr. Johnson, the two of us leading a couple of dozen other employees, Johnson turning to me and moaning over and over again:  The Russians! The Russians!  It's an attack!  They've done this! Set in the context of how these immigrant publishers landed on the shores of the United States, the reaction was quite understandable.

So in light of that, it is utterly plausible for a Fred Praeger to embrace anti Soviet studies while conveniently accepting CIA funding.

My first personal encounter with Fred Praeger -  other than running into him at Frankfurt or some of the scholarly association meetings we both regularly attended -  was a day I spent with him at his Westview Press office in Boulder Co.  It was sometime in the Fall of 1984, not long after Publisher's Weekly had published a long article about me and I think Fred was curious about the competition but basically I think he wanted me to see his operation and pay homage.  Of course I was curious as well.  We competed with one another but had chosen different paths -- he trying to control all aspects of the business, including manufacturing, whereas my philosophical approach to publishing was to focus on bringing authors and markets together, leaving all manufacturing to subcontractors. 

We had a good day together and our relationship remained cordial until the end of 1985 when CBS Publishing put his former business, the eponymous Praeger Publishers, Inc. on the market.  We did preliminary due diligence on the business and so did Fred.  Sealed bids were submitted.  We won the right to complete the due diligence process and to negotiate a final price based on our findings.  During that process I had my regularly scheduled Frankfurt Bookfair rendezvous in October.  I ran into Fred. He was furious with me.  What right did I have to buy a company with his name?  What right!!!????  (The name of course was an inseparable part of the company.)

He stormed off and my contacts with him from then on at meetings were his menacing glares. He was a creative publisher, and I respected him, but he, too, could be a intimidating and difficult person. He sold Westview only a few years later.

There are other individuals mentioned or portrayed in Immigrant Publishers who I knew or dealt with, but not to the extent of the three I talk about here.  They were exiles from their homelands who immigrated to the US or the UK in search of security and entrepreneurial opportunities in publishing.  They were on the cusp of the information age and instinctively they seized that opening for new, thriving scientific, technical and social science publishing businesses.  They indirectly paved the way for what we now know as the Internet age (one wonders what they would have done with today's technology).  But it all harkens back to what constitutes knowledge.  As Charles Kegan Paul (publisher of Kegan Paul & Trench) said towards the end of the 19th century,  "It is by books that mind speaks to mind, by books the world's intelligence grows, books are the tree of knowledge, which has grown into and twined its branches with those of the tree of life, and of the common fruit men eat and become as gods knowing good and evil." 

These "immigrant publishers" gave rise to another generation of publishers -- I was among them -- ones that learned the ropes from these pioneers.  We in turn laid down the groundwork for the ubiquitous use of computers in publishing and anticipated on demand and on line publishing.  As that May 25, 1984 Publisher's Weekly profile concluded its article..."We're working on disseminating online information," says Hagelstein -- derived at first from books, but ultimately, he believes, to be online only....What Greenwood's whole approach seems to be leading to is that so-far elusive development we are always being told is in our future: books on demand.... Perhaps, in its own way and with all deliberate speed, [it] is pointing the way to the future of the book."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


It is rare to read literature outside of my "comfort zone" of Contemporary American, and rarer still to read novels approaching 1,000 pages, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up Shantaram, recommended to me by my son, Jonathan, but within a few pages I was hooked. Really, a remarkable first novel, given its author, Gregory David Roberts, an Australian, was a convicted bank robber and heroin addict who spent ten years in an Australian prison before escaping and then fleeing to India. The novel is largely autobiographical. As he says in the Acknowledgements, it took him 13 years to write the novel and the first two drafts, "six years' work and six hundred pages were destroyed in prison."

He has a unique perspective on India, in particular Bombay which was to become Mumbai, but most people in India still call it Bombay, one of the most populous urban regions in the world. Dickens' London was such a city in the 19th century and in many ways Roberts' focus on the underbelly of the city reminds me of Dickens' concern with poverty, crime and imprisonment, and slum life. In fact, that is where real life can be found, in Oliver Twist, Bleak House and in Shantaram. They are also similar because of the multiplicity of characters. If you read Shantaram, develop a character list.

During many of my publishing years I worked through an agent for sales in India. Our business was not substantial enough to go there, but each year I met with our agent, Vinod, at the Frankfurt Bookfair, and we developed a good relationship. He was a tough negotiator, but he had a winning smile and in spite of other publishers' complaints about getting paid for sales to India, we shipped on open account and Vinod's word was always good. In reading this novel, Vinod kept coming to mind. Like Vinod, the first Indian, Prabaker, to befriend the novel's main character was a man with a winning smile. As another character in the novel says: "This is India, man. This is India. This is the land of the heart. This is where the heart is king, man. The fuckin' heart!

And at the heart of this novel, is India and its power of redemption for our main character, Lindsay Ford, who escapes from an Australian prison and stops in Bombay on his way to another destination. But Bombay becomes his home and he plunges into the nadir of society, becoming a resident in its slums through his friendship with Prabaker. It is Prabaker's mother, Rukhmabai Kharre, who gives him the name, Shantaram: "Man of Peace, or man of God's peace" "I don't know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow. Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I was born in those moments, as I stood near the flood sticks with my face lifted to the chrismal rain. Shantaram. The better man that, slowly, and much too late I began to be." But for much of the novel Shantaram is an ironic name as "Lin" or "Linbaba" as Prabaker names him, descends into familiar ways of violence and crime as the novel unfolds.

But there is a difference between his crimes in Australia and those in Bombay. He becomes a member of a mafia "family" and indeed, friendship, loyalty, and search for a spiritual father are also prevailing themes in the novel. There is honor among these thieves. As Abdel Khader Khan, his mafia boss and surrogate father says: "We concentrate our laws, investigations, prosecutions, and punishments on how much crime is in the sin, rather than how much sin is in the crime....It is for this reason that I will not sell children, or women, or pornography, or drugs....In all of these things, the sin in the crime is so great that a man must give up his soul for the profit he makes."

He adopts a "brother," Abdullah. "I learned that only one man in hundreds will stand with you, to the end, in friendship's name...Prison also taught me how to recognise those rare men when I met them. I knew that Abdullah was such a man. In my hunted exile, biting back the fear, ready to fight and die every haunted day, the strength and wildness and will that I found in him were more, and better than all the truth and goodness in the world."

And the novel is about love, unrequited and requited, particularly his undying love for Karla, a Swiss-American woman who lives in the shadows. "One of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you."

Also central to this novel is the exile in society and literature. "When I'd climbed the wall of the prison all those years before, it was as if I'd climbed a wall on the rim of the world. When I slid down to freedom I lost the whole world that I knew, and all the love it held. In Bombay I'd tried, without realizing it, to make a new world of loving that could resemble the lost one, and even replace it."

And in that "new world" he meets others like himself and those became his family. "They were all, we were all, strangers to the city. None of us was born there. All of us were refugees, survivors, pitched up on the shores of the island city. If there was a bond between us, it was the bond exiles, the kinship of the lost, the lonely, and the dispossessed."

There is a dancing bear in the novel, Kano, which Abdullah arranges to hug Linbaba and some 800 pages later Linbaba finds himself helping the bear to leave the same prison in Bombay where he also has spent some tortuous time. Then he helps the giant bear to escape the city disguised as a Genesha, on a trolley, at the end of a an annual festival. "The elephant-headed god was known as the Lord of Obstacles and the Great Solver of Problems. People in trouble appealed to him with prayers....He was also the divine ministrant of writers." Throughout the novel people turn to Linbaba. He served as ministrant to all, from learning to treat illness in the slums to helping friends, to serving his mafia family. Redemption and loyalty. That is the essence of the novel.

As a literary work, it labors at times and I thought it really was two novels, the main one in Bombay and the one in Afghanistan. Apparently, there is a sequel in the works which takes Linbaba to Sri Lanka. Also, not surprisingly, the movie rights to this epic novel were sold because of Johnny Depp's interest in the book and in starring in the movie. Ideal casting methinks, but the novel is sprawling and wrestling it into a manageable screenplay and Depp's schedule has delayed filming. One hopes it will see the light of day, even if the movie has to be truncated to include only the Bombay experience. By the way, part of the novel covers the Bollywood scene, as it does nearly everything else!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Updike, Roth, Dreiser

This blog entry was really started by my blogger friend, Emily, who “tagged” me to name twenty-five writers who have “influenced” my life (not necessarily because they are great writers). Although I “answered” her with just their names, I had promised to explain why. To me, reading literature is to explore history and psychology, the human tapestry laid threadbare. Basically I am drawn to those writers I can personally relate to and I’m embarrassed to admit that those I like the most I take the longest to read, lingering over the experience so as to savor every word.

Before getting to my more detailed “answer” by writer, this is what I originally wrote to Emily:

“I’m not too good at this – in fact as I don’t “do” Facebook, I don’t even know what getting “tagged” means. But I think I get the gist of it. This is an interesting project, one that I would have to give a lot of thought to explain why I chose my 25 writers. It is something I might get to this summer. Frequently, the reasoning will be that one writer brought me to another wonderful writer, simple as that. So, I promise, sometime in the future I’ll write an entry on this, but I can’t promise I’ll “tag” 25 other bloggers – I don’t even read that many blogs and except for yours, they are mostly financially oriented (that reveals where my own blog is frequently slanted). But I did come up with my 25 authors and so, below, here’s the list in the order as I thought of them (might have to be rearranged when I think this through). There is a heavy bias to contemporary American fiction, with one biographer in the group. I could name scores of writers who have written for me their one-time classic (such as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” or Alan Lightman’s “The Diagnosis”), not to mention the writers I studied in college (Franz Kafka for instance), who have had an impact on me and therefore could easily be added to the list. I could also add Pat Conroy whom you mention, but he didn’t come up when I went through this mental exercise. One of the best works I read by him is a memoir, “My Losing Season” but you’d have to love basketball as much as I do to appreciate it. Also, I share your admiration for Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift” and “Rule of the Bone” (which I think is his best work). Here are the 25, off the top of my head:”

So, further expanding my answer, I am going to keep the same order, as they came to me, but no other significance beyond that.

John Updike. If one searches “Updike” in my blog you will find other entries. I once saw him at a Pen Writers meeting where he was the main speaker and wanted to go over to him to chat. He seemed so approachable and kindly, but I became involved in a discussion with Russell Baker whose book All Things Considered we had just reissued. So other people surrounded Updike and I thought there would be other opportunities, at the Frankfurt Bookfair or perhaps the American Booksellers Association meetings, or another Pen Writers conference, but our paths never crossed again, other than his speaking to me through his works. Updike’s influence on me is he not only helped explain the American Zeitgeist, but he also explored issues relevant to my “maleness” ten years hence, as Updike was nearly exactly ten years older than I. The stages of Harry Angstrom’s life as depicted in the Rabbit novels are neatly spaced out about a decade apart, so painstakingly capturing the times in America, his maturation and ultimate decline.

I am now reading his last novel, the Widows of Eastwick, with sadness and reverence for a great American writer. Only a man who has walked the walk can write words such as this: "Jim's illness drove her and Jim down from safe, arty Taos into the wider society, the valleys of the ailing, a vast herd moving like stampeded bison toward the killing cliff. The socialization forced upon her -- interviews with doctors, most of them unsettlingly young; encounters with nurses, demanded merciful attentions the hospitalized patient was too manly and depressed to ask for himself; commiseration with others in her condition, soon-to-be widows and widowers she would have shunned on the street but now, in these antiseptic hallways, embraced with shared tears -- prepared her for travel in the company of strangers." Unfortunately, I’ve had similar “hospital experiences” and dread the inevitability of an encore. But, now, with Updike gone, I think of his poem “Perfection Wasted” which you can find at the very end of this blog entry.

Philip Roth. I think I respond in a similar way to Roth, a writer who seems to know me but in a different way. Where Updike awakens the Calvinist background of my early years and the suburban existence of my later life, Roth explores the “Jewishness” of my New York City years. I’ve long felt his American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century,

The novel made me relive those Vietnam years of the 60’s and the social upheavals of the times. It is a novel in the negative universe of Updike’s Rabbit, in that the main character is also a former high school star athlete, but from the inner city, one who in his attempt to create the “perfect life” of the American dream, an American pastoral, finds his daughter caught up in Weather Underground violence as he also helplessly witnesses the destruction of his once beloved inner-city Newark in the 1970s. An American Dream turned American Nightmare, capturing exactly the way I felt at the time.

Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman narrates the novel. It is through Zuckerman in many of Roth’s other works that we have a window into Roth’s view of writing itself. The Anatomy Lesson is one of the “Zuckerman” novels. In it Zuckerman is thinking about his writing and what it had become in his life:

“It looked as though life had become bigger yet. Writing would intensify everything even further. Writing, as Mann had testified – not least by his own example – was the only worthwhile attainment, the surpassing experience, the exalted struggle, and there was no way to write other than like a fanatic. Without fanaticism, nothing great in fiction could ever be achieved. He had the highest possible conception of the gigantic capacities of literature to engulf and purify life. He would write more, publish more, and life would become colossal.

But what became colossal was the next page. He thought he had chosen life but what he had chosen was the next page. Stealing time to write stories, he never thought to wonder what time might be stealing from him. Only gradually did the perfecting of a writer’s iron will begin to feel like the evasion of experience, and the means to imaginative release, to the exposure, revelation, and invention of life, like the sternest form of incarceration. He thought he’d chosen the intensification of everything and he’d chosen monasticism and retreat instead. Inherent in this choice was a paradox that he had never foreseen.”

Of course in spite of all of Zuckerman’s protestations, Roth has gone on to write at least a dozen novels after that one, and, thankfully, is still going strong. His more recent works are dark, clearly concerned with his physical decline and the future. But, writing is work, something that I have found, and few work as vigorously and focused as Roth.

Theodore Dreiser. I skip to a writer of my college years, having devoured everything he wrote during those years, either for assignments or just because I found his Darwinian philosophy of life a revelation at the time. I spent a harrowing week in the Brooklyn Hospital ward with pleurisy, the consequence of teenage stupidity because I had taken caffeine tablets for a couple of all-nighters to study for exams and became exhausted. This led to my contracting that most painful condition. In the hospital I began to read Dreiser’s “Cowperwood trilogy,” the first two written before the 1920’s and the last one some thirty years later after WW II, tracing the life of financier Frank Cowperwood. Cowperwood’s life is built around an economically and socially hostile world, where the survival of the fittest reigns supreme. On his way to school as a ten year old, the future financier passes a store window which exhibits a lobster and a squid contained in a fish tank and one day he discovers the lobster had devoured the squid, Dreiser commenting: “The incident had a great impression on him. It answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: How is life organized? Things lived on each other – that was it…Sure, men lived on men.” This social-Darwinian leitmotif runs through all of his writings and became a worldview that reverberated throughout my working life. My DNA, though, prevented me from doing the “eating” but I learned how not “to be eaten.” In my very first job after college I was thrown to the wolves in the production department of the now defunct Johnson Reprint Corporation, which was part of Academic Press. By “wolves” I mean coworkers who did not like my intense work ethic and would have eaten me alive except I learned how to deal with them from my Dreiser “education.” That education would prove to be valuable right up to my retirement, helping me negotiate the labyrinths of corporate politics as well.

That’s it for this session, three down, and only twenty-two to go! Just looking over the remaining list I can see that this is going to take a very long time to do thoughtfully. Rather than rushing through it, I’ll post installments as time permits, leaving the rest of the list a mystery although perhaps you can guess many just from the first few.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

“Business” Relationships

During my 35-year working career, I had just two jobs, the first for nearly six years and the last for thirty. Loyalty to the employer and visa a versa was more typical then. But, more importantly to me, was loyalty to the people, co-workers and vendors alike. In fact, these relationships frequently evolved into deep friendships. And, I think that made the difference between “having” to work and loving work.

I was also fortunate to find the profession that found me. I think of the idiosyncratic title of Anne Tyler’s novel, Accidental Tourist, as I was the accidental publisher. As many others of my generation, I married early. At 21 my first wife became pregnant, erasing plans of going to graduate school. Instead, it was off to work I had to go.

At the time my wife happened to have a summer job at Dell Publishing and her boss agreed to give me a one-hour education in the basics of production as a back door into the publishing industry. Knowing the difference between a point and a pica was invaluable lingo to get a job, but, finally, it was nothing more than my typing skills that prevailed in my job search. In 1964 I began work as a production assistant at the Johnson Reprint Corporation, a division of Academic Press.

Publishing became a continuous postgraduate education, providing an opportunity to work with brilliant authors, skilled vendors, and wonderful staff. And treating business vendors as partners – typesetters, printers, and distributors -- made for relationships that spanned an entire working career.

I was particularly fond of our overseas distribution partners who were expert in markets where different conventions and languages made it difficult for a US publisher to compete. We established long-standing relationships in Europe, Japan, Singapore, and Australia. While contracts governed the major terms of these arrangements, a handshake sometime covered the nuances. We shared budgets, forward plans, openly and honestly back and forth.

Over the course of time, I became close to the principals of these businesses, as well as their families. None were closer than ties to Peter G. who was the founder of a U.K. company that covered the European markets. He was a brilliant and articulate businessperson with savoir-faire.

Although Peter was thirteen years older than I, we met and joined forces when our respective businesses were in their formative stages. We supported each other in our separate but similar endeavors. We spent time together in our respective Westport and London offices as well as the Frankfurt Bookfair, strategizing, sometimes agonizing, and always laughing. I can still see that glint in his eye as he ruminated about an iconoclastic approach to marketing our publishing list in Europe.

In the early 1990’s Peter was diagnosed with cancer. His illness never brought his spirits down, at least in his dealings with me. Hearing this troubling news, Ann and I visited with he and his wife and we went out on the town instead of moping.

Peter died at the age of 63, fifteen years ago last month. Just days after his death I received an extraordinary letter, emblematic of the man and our relationship. “If there is a lesson to be learned here….”

Printed Directly from PG’s Personal Disc
Date as Postmark

Dear Bob & Ann:

Although we have not spoken of it much, you will know, Bob, that I have always valued our very special relationship. Few colleagues in publishing have ever shared such a close understanding of each other’s achievements in the face of, and most usually in spite of, frequent adversity, abiding uncertainty, and the constant fear of failure.

I like to think, on the other hand, that we made good use of such time as we could spend together, helping buttress each other throughout the years. Would that we could have seen the next step through together. But, then, there is always yet another step!

Happily, you have inherited relationships (albethey quite different from ours) with both [my sons]. Thus, there promises to be continuity, as indeed there should. However, it now behooves you to play the father figure! The King is dead; long live the King!

I shall remain ever grateful to my surgeon, whose honest and accurate estimates enabled [my wife] and me to crowd our residual quality time together with joyous and memorable events. And, most of all, to [my wife] whose energy, strength and courage have made all things possible. God could not have blessed me with a more loving, caring, and supportive wife.

I want you both to know that I go in peace and with only the happiest of memories fresh in mind. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is surely that each and everyone of us should value every day along the way – for, certainly, nary a one is given back to do over!

With much love,