Reading Robert Gottlieb’s literary ramblings is more fun than sitting at the elbow of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and watching him pencil-whip Thomas Wolfe’s manuscripts into shape. A master storyteller, Gottlieb doesn’t just drop names, he cluster-bombs them. Avid Reader gets off to a rather leisurely start as he recounts his early literary enthusiasms while a student at Columbia and Cambridge. But after that, he runs full-tilt through his years mentoring authors at Simon & Schuster, Knopf, The New Yorker and then back to Knopf again as a benign éminence grise. There are also concluding sections on his years working with prominent dance companies and on his emergence as a writer with his own voice.
One of Gottlieb’s duties as an editor was coming up with titles for books and overseeing dust jacket and advertising copy. That being the case, it seems odd at first that the title for his own life story feels so tepid. But the reason soon becomes clear. Ingesting and remembering vast libraries is Gott-lieb’s hallmark. He’s a quick reader, too, he reports, a facility that has enabled him to pass sage judgment on manuscripts virtually within hours of receiving them. One of the headlines that heralded his move from Simon & Schuster blared, “Avid Reader to Head Knopf.”
Joseph Heller, Jessica Mitford, S.J. Perelman, Lauren Bacall, ex-President Bill Clinton, Katharine Hepburn, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, John Cheever, Nora Ephron, John le Carré and Bruno Bettelheim are but a few of the literary lambs Gottlieb shepherded—and there are copious personal tales for each.
It’s interesting to note that William Shawn, the revered New Yorker editor whom Gottlieb replaced amid staff furor, is the only person in the book to whom Gottlieb consistently assigns the honorific “Mr.” He calls Clinton “Bill.”