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

I was in my late twenties when I first arrived at Book World in the spring of 1978. During the previous year, I had written half a dozen reviews for Bill McPhersonwho oversaw the department, and one day he asked me if I was interested in it Become an assistant editor. He needed someone who could map literature, poetry, history, and everything purely non-political. It seemed to me that I fit the bill.

Partly because I had never worked for a newspaper before, everything about The Post struck me as a charm. Surprisingly noisy. In those days, every employee’s closet contained a telephone, a heavy-metal Rolodex watch and a silicate typewriter. The phones in the open newsroom rang almost continuously, and reporters wrote their stories on six-ply papers, instantly creating five copies of each page. One of those pages – called a “take” – will be passed up into a case and sent through pneumatic tubes to the composition chamber. There, Linotype machines convert these vertebrae into rows of metallic type.

In later years, installers — we called them printers — would use heavy cardboard flats to create mockups per page, a task strictly limited to members of the Printers Guild. An elegant red-haired Englishman named Brian Jacob has long been composing the pages of Book World while grumbling snippets of wisdom from old music hall songs, such as “If you want to tell the time, ask a cop.” As soon as MacPherson repositioned some camera-ready artwork himself, the foreman’s voice rang almost immediately over the loudspeaker: “Tools down.” All work stopped on the ground. A timid Bill was never warned not to do it again.

With the exception of Carl Bernstein, most of the people who have appeared in films “All the president’s men” And the “the post‘Still on paper. Mrs. Graham – like Kathryn Graham It was always called – inspiring awe, for being the most aristocratic person I have ever met; Ben Bradley He was enthusiastic and luxurious; The opening pages have been taken care of by the smartest Meg Greenfield. If you encounter Herblock In the aisle, he’d always ask you what you think of his latest political cartoon. After Don Graham took over the newspaper’s publisher, he practiced “management by wandering” on a regular basis and, surprisingly, could have greeted any of his several hundred employees by name. Moreover, whenever you write something particularly good, you will find a free note from Don in your mailbox.

Each week, a diverse staff—the department’s editor-in-chief and four assistant editors—presented five daily style reviews and filled 16 pages of Sunday’s “tab,” an independent section of the magazine. Besides individual reviews and reports (for children’s books, puzzles, science fiction, and fantasy), each edition required a fair amount of internal writing: quick titles and paragraph descriptions for half a dozen titles in New in Paperback and New in Hardcover, a literature test called a Book Bag, and lists of books Bestsellers in hardcover and paperback compiled from sales figures reported by local bookstores.

As long ago as September, I noticed the works of several French thinkers – Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the like – occasionally appearing on the list. It turns out that a Francophile news assistant named Joe, tasked with putting together the list, decided their work should be a bestseller, and he made sure of it. By the way, Joe was a colorful character like Brian. If you summon him to your office, he will stand up very intently, stroke his chest with his fist in a Roman salute and say, “Yes, my lord.”

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I used to make up several Book Bag questions, but the one I remember now was built around the close resemblance in the name of two contemporaries, Beatrix Potter, creator of “Peter Rabbit” and Beatrice Potter, the Fabian socialist who, after her marriage, became Beatrice Webb. On the Monday morning after this question came up, I was called into an office Richard Harwoodcoarse Assistant Managing Editor who oversaw several departments including Book World. Harwood, a former Marine, “left to die on Iwo Jima” – as he was fondly referred to – complained that the test had become too difficult and too vague. “Dirda, I want questions like ‘Mary has a little,’ followed by a void people can fill.” I nodded in acquiescence, but didn’t make the questions any easier.

In those days, every major publisher sent us proofs and revision copies, which were duly deferred by the month of publication in the writers’ room. Each afternoon, after the day’s mail was delivered, the floor would be covered ankle-deep in small padded envelopes and boxes. We stomped on them regularly without a second thought. Moreover, any “good art” book may be subject to distortion if we need an illustration to review it. As something of a book lover, I find cutting images out of books shocking, but newspaper work strengthens even the most sensitive soul. When our Artistic Director, Kunio Francis Tanabe, went on vacation I was the one who used the X-ACTO knife.

Every Monday, Book World staff would gather to bring up the contents of the next issue, argue about what should happen in the front, and, after discussing potential books for review, lament that publishing wasn’t what it used to be. Upon appointment, we either phoned or — yes, the kids — wrote actual letters to potential reviewers. sensationalist Ross Thomas He always answers his phone in the second episode and turns into a pure copy. Dependable, the perfect professional. But for the sake of brilliance, we might ask Stephen King to write about Robert Ludlum (which he did in a devastating evisceration), or arrange a piece of Salman Rushdie when he was in Hiding from an Islamic fatwa, or presenting a conversation between Joseph Heller and Mel Brooks in which they talked about their childhood reading. But we also tried a new promising book. In 1981, I setOh!to a Post intern named David Remnick, who is now the New Yorker’s Editor.

In those years after Watergate, I was regularly looking for reviewers among the older writers I admired. I once spent 45 minutes talking to novelist Christopher Isherwood about WH Auden, and cajoling Sir Harold Acton—dedicated to Evelyn Waugh.fall and fall—In reviewing books about the Brideshead generation, I requested pieces from Malcolm Cowley and Morley Callaghan, who were both expats in Paris during the 1920s, and persuaded Robert Penn Warren to send us a poem.

Among my contemporaries, it commissioned as much as they could afford from composer Ned Ruhrm, musician Guy Davenport, classicist Bernard Knox, and novelists Gilbert Sorrentino, Robertson Davis and Angela Carter. I remember that Angela – we became friends over the phone – was almost ironic in her review of Gabriel García Márquez who praised her so much”Love in the time of Cholera. Roald Dahl, who somehow resisted my sweet words, mentioned that his favorite American writer was Ed McBain, the creator of police procedures at Precinct No. 87. Since we grew up in the same city, I’ve been staying with Toni Morrison and have been able to converse with her kindly. A piece about Jan Tomer.

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Perhaps the achievement I am most proud of during those early years at Book World was the monthly column of science fiction and fantasy, which began only after Joanna Ross, an old friend and author of the classic feminist book, “female man‘You have provided me with a great tutelage. Soon, no other mainstream newspaper can match our coverage of Fantastica.’ Browse the legendary Theodore sturgeon Young Thai writer SP Somtow. we ran “Poem on the death of Philip K. rooster‘, by the great Thomas M. Desch. George RR Martin I scribbled for Book World long before “Game of thrones“And Ursula K. Logan and John Crowley became frequent and favorite reviewers of anything. Best of all, when he completed Jane Wolfe”new sun book“John Clout’s Account of the Final Volume,”king’s castleShe deserved the first page and she got it.

Washington has always been a wonderful book city. For a big weekend spread, I visited David Streetfield — then a non-specialist publishing reporter for Book World, now a business reporter for the New York Times — and briefly described 35 second-hand bookshops in the greater metro area. One memorable evening, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan hosted a party on the hill where I found myself arguing about Ezra Pound with novelist Bernard Malamud and CIA Director James Jesus Angleton. Then my wife and I lived in the same apartment building that I lived in Mary McGrory, Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist. Once, as I was on our way to the laundry room with a basket of soiled clothes, the elevator opened and there stood Teddy Kennedy and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, both on their way to Mary’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.

Book World has always been trying new ways to keep the department alive. For example, we ran half a dozen pieces to trace how the book was made: In one, Leo and Diane Dillon revealed the secrets of the dust jacket illustration. We even dedicated entire special issues to off-track topics, including home maintenance. I’ve already reviewed seven or eight plumbing repair manuals. Back in the ’80s, another topic theme focused on comics and included pieces about the Hernandez Brothers and Harvey Piccard.American Splendor” And the “guards. “

Relentlessly, every year, our seasonal specials, geared towards children’s books, winter holidays, and holiday reading, demand new crowd-pleasing features.. For one summer reading issue, I asked John Sutherland — an expert in folk literature — for an annotated list of the 20 worst or bestselling books that became bestsellers of the 20th century. Sutherland wrote: “At number 19, nominated for the most vulgar novel I’ve ever read, Judith KrantzBest seller in 1991,dazzleI was pleased to see this. I started my own review of that novel: “I read ‘Dazzle’ in one sitting. I had to. I was afraid I couldn’t face picking it up again.”

As a children’s book editor, I came up with a series in which many writers remember reading them in their childhood, for example, Argentina (Alberto Manguel), India (Shashi Tharoorand the Soviet UnionCathy Young). Perhaps Book World’s most popular feature, “re-discoveries,” looked at unjustly neglected books that were primarily the work of Noel Perrin (who collected his articles in “Reader’s delightMuch later, Book World editor Mary Arana conducted an impressive series of author interviews, which were eventually published under the title “”).writing lifeWhile the Library of Congress award-winning poets – Rita DoveAnd the Robert HaasRobert Pinsky – wrote in an infectious way about their favorite poems in The Poet’s Choice.

Sigh, my editor told me I should really stop. However, this was the deepest dive into the early history of Book World and a lot had to be left out (some scandalous – those were the days!). Moreover, I have no doubt that my former colleagues – of whom I was able to mention only a few – tell different and better stories. The fact remains that in 2009 the Sunday tab stopped publishing and the book’s coverage was split between Style and Outlook, where it remains until now. But with this issue of Book World, its editors—John Williams, Stephanie Merry, Stephen Livingston, Nora Krug and Jacob Brogan—helped by critic Ron Charles and bureau director Becky Melwan relaunch an independent section on Sunday. They even let me stay part of the fun. Come join us.

Michael Derda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Book World columnist, and author of a memoir “open bookEdgar Award Winneron Conan DoyleAnd five groups of articles:%s . readobligated pleasebook by bookClassics for fun” And the “browsing. “

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