Monday, May 28, 2018

The word is bereft: remembering Peter Mayer

In the space of just a few weeks this spring, the world of readers lost three of the great ones—Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, and Peter Mayer, a publisher unlike any other who passed away earlier this month at the age of 82. Peter's passing has left me feeling bereft. I had always considered him one of The Immortals.

If Peter’s name is unfamiliar, here’s my favorite way to introduce him: the first time I met Peter, I served him a slew of eighteenth-century insults…and he loved them.

At the time I had recently and somewhat improbably licensed an (abridged) edition of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary to George Gibson, then the owner of Walker Publishing. You need to meet Peter Mayer, George advised. He will have ideas for you.

I needed some. I was the editor of a small specialty-publishing imprint that was a sideline business to a larger company in Florida. I was tasked with publishing books that would not be sold anywhere else but would still sell.

Put another way: I was nobody in particular in the publishing world, and I was going to meet someone who was legendary.

At that point Peter was in the last chapter of his extraordinary publishing career, after his time as CEO of Penguin in Britain, and after he had published Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses despite the death threats. Peter was by then running Overlook Press out of his very-downtown Manhattan office, whose squeaky wood floors and lively hum signaled to visitors that this was no corporate bland land of publishing.

Peter's preposterous idea

Peter and I met at the London Book Fair, in 2003. I wanted to take him something for our first meeting, but what? A book was superfluous. As a line extension to the Johnson dictionary, we had created a set of magnets that each sported one of the more colorful insults from the book—slubberdegullion, fopdoodle, and the like. So I took Peter a tin of Samuel Johnson’s insults.

And that was how our friendship began. The consummately shrewd Peter immediately grasped what I was trying to do with this small imprint and, just as George promised, had an idea. He would reprise some of the more expensive, out-of-print books he had published in years past, and we would publish new versions of them as high-end, limited-edition books.

The only way I could successfully sell them, though, was if I sold them exclusively, not jointly with Overlook. For anyone else, this would have been a deal breaker. For Peter, it was barely a shrug. He would wait until I’d sold through my stock and then bring out a slightly different version for Overlook.

The word bubbling up in the head of any publisher reading this is most likely: preposterous. Who does this? Who sits on inventory until somebody else sells through their stock?

The word is generosity

I never did fully understand why Peter was so uncommonly generous to me. He was a savvy businessperson, evident in his commanding presence. He punctuated it with a voice that was unmistakable—a Cary-Grant-on-steroids voice, but with more of a New York accent, his home for most of his life (although he was born in England). It was a voice that spoke of keen intelligence, to say nothing of experience.

Most of all, Peter really didn’t need this idea of his for his own imprint.

But he was of his own era and mind, a book man who believed in the near-alchemistic powers of books. Even more—and more simply—Peter was kind.

He and I published some stunning books together: Jerusalem, The Saga of the Holy City; The Grimani Breviary; The Sarajevo Haggadah. I confess that when Peter proposed the last one to me, I didn’t know what a Haggadah was. Aren’t you Jewish? he said incredulously. Half-Lebanese, I assured him.

It was only the second time I knew Peter to be (momentarily) nonplussed. The first was when I told him, between tears, that I could never repay him for what he’d done for me.

The last book we published together was a collection of Redouté’s famous flower paintings. We produced it as an “unbound book,” an idea that I suggested and Peter enthusiastically endorsed. If anyone actually beams with pride anymore, I did when Peter said he liked the idea.

There was another, bigger project afterwards that we planned to collaborate on. But then the sideline-business imprint got sidelined. I wrote Peter to let him know. He immediately wrote me back, distraught. When he called me shortly after that, I could hear the concern in his voice. I was to come see him anyway, when I came to New York.

I never got that chance. But Peter had given me a much larger chance—the opportunity to do, at least for a short time, the work I loved best.

I was a small, insignificant speck in a world where he was a giant. There was really no reason for him to help me the way he did. But that was the way Peter Mayer lived.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

When books become sanctuary

Two remarkable events for readers and word lovers occurred back to back just a few days ago—the National Book Awards dinner and the Miami Book Fair. The Book Awards’ elegant function was black tie. The Book Fair’s ebullient weekend street fair was awash in tank tops. Different as they were, both reminded me that in books, we find not just knowledge and ideas and the power to transport. Not only wisdom and solace. But also, sanctuary.

Sanctuary: from the Latin sanctus. A holy place, a sacred place. A place that offers asylum and immunity.

A refuge.

For those of us who feel whipsawed by the often dystopian (dystrumpian?) world we’ve inhabited this past year, both these events offered a reassurance that yes, things are not at all as they should be, but there are people who can give voice to this in ways that just might give hope to us.

Annie Proulx, in her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, railed against the “Kafkaesque time” we lived in. But she also said this:

“Somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing.”

The word of the weekend

Perhaps it was just the happenstance of the sessions I chose to attend at the Miami Book Fair (there are hundreds), but even so—the word of the weekend seemed to be empathy.

“What we lack is empathy for real people,” Chris Matthews told his audience. Norman Ornstein alluded to the need for it when he reminded his audience that true patriotism is “not negative nationalism.”

George Saunders, who also spoke of empathy, cautioned that “the enemy right now is despair.” To George Saunders belongs the prize-winning book, Lincoln in the Bardo. The term “bardo” draws on the Buddhist concept of a transitional state, which perhaps inspired this observation from the author: “I’m convinced our country is on the brink of a beautiful breakthrough.”

Please oh please, George, be right.

Joe Biden joined in…and Charles Dickens, too

To George Saunders also belonged the conversation with former Vice President Joe Biden. “You learn empathy,” the Vice President said, talking about his childhood. From his mother he learned this: “You’re defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty.” And from Joe Biden, we in the audience learned this: “Silence is complicity.”

Book Fair audiences also got a behind-the-scenes look at the new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s based on Les Standiford’s book, which found a book-to-film champion in Mitchell Kaplan.  Mitchell is the impresario behind the 33-year-strong Miami Book Fair, along with Dr. Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami Dade College. He is also the owner of Books & Books, and now a film producer as well.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is its own backstory, of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol.  Lots of us at the fair “got pinned” with one of the big campaign-style buttons promoting the film. It featured a Dickens quote…but not the Tiny Tim one that would have been too easy.

Instead, it was in keeping with the E-word: 
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
Or who offers sanctuary to mind and spirit.

In the root of “sanctuary” is also a verb, sancīre: to hallow. These two sacrosanct events for readers reminded me in the most uplifting of ways that one thing we can do is hallow our books.

But let’s give the last word to Annie Proulx, and her acceptance speech.
 “The happy ending still beckons,” she told us, “and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on.”

Sunday, June 19, 2016

For those of us who can’t say “Happy Father’s Day” today

Well, of course we can say it to someone we know. I can say it to Jeff and Mike and new-dad Thomas, and to plenty of other men who wear the mantle of fatherhood with their own kind of tenderness.

But for those of us whose own fathers are no longer with us, Father’s Day is one that reminds us of what the word bereft means. It’s been 11 years for me—since I could last extend that greeting, in person, to the man who was my father.

I consider myself lucky, though, that five years ago I was given the chance to write an essay about a meaningful object in my life for the book Holding Dear: The Value of the Real. I chose an object that was my father’s. Here is what I wrote:

The Reliquary Cap

It is a word I have long admired. Reliquary. There is a fullness to it, a smoothness, like water gliding, sliding, over stone. Just enough syllables to slow you for a moment, a split-second pause to reflect and remember. It is a word that helps you observe the memories of what it holds.

Ever since work on this book began, I have asked myself what, should someone ask, my object of reflection/attention/affection would be. A pencil, perhaps, because I still compose the first words on paper. A white stone from one of the outer beaches that my husband and I head to, Mecca-style, early of a Cape Cod morning nearly every summer. The books I’ve had the joy of working on.

But these are objects of the present, things that speak of what’s possible, what will still be here tomorrow (or so one prefers to think). I realize that my object hold no such possibility. Just memories. A reliquary.

It is the corduroy cap that my father wore most days to work. When he came home I would often take it from him and hang it on the three-pronged hook in the room just off the kitchen.

“Country Gentleman” is the label sewn inside. The gentleman part is right but the “country” is laughable. My father was a city boy, Boston-born and –bred, a product of Boston Latin and B.U., the immigrant kid who was perfectly at home walking the streets of the South End at three o’clock in the morning. He ended up in a small town in western New York where you never knew what kind of creature (a squirrel! a chipmunk!) might jump out at you at three o’clock in the afternoon.

He doted on his daughters and I doted right back. I adored him for all the reasons girls love their fathers. But I also admired him, especially because I worked for him.

My father wore two hats: head of the school of business at St. Bonaventure University, and owner of an accounting practice. I worked for him in the latter, starting in junior high. I learned how to prepare financial statements and tax returns from him. I also learned that you never talked about a client outside of the office and that a deadline really was.

In later years, as I wised up a little, I appreciated how extraordinarily smart my father was—far more conceptual and analytical (and shrewd) than I could ever be. Much more logical, and yet so empathetic.

We were close. After he’d retired from Bona’s but still had his practice, I took to calling him at the office every week, from my home office in Florida. We would just chat. It was usually a Tuesday when I called. Our own Tuesdays with Morrie.

When he died, he was 91 and still doing tax returns and what did it matter that I knew it was his time, I was crushed. I helped my mother close his office, and I didn’t mind going through the files but the shoes were just too painful. He kept a pair there that he could slide into when he took off his winter boots. Now they looked forlorn and vulnerable. Empty. I couldn’t bear to look at them and still don’t remember what we did with them.

But his cap was there at my parents’ house, hanging on the three-pronged hook, and I told my mother I wanted it. I’ll have it dry cleaned for you, she said. No, I replied. I want it just as it is.

Because if I buried my face in the lining of it, beyond the Country Gentleman label, I could smell wisdom and love.

My father’s cap now hangs on a single hook in my house, on the side of a bookcase I face when I’m sitting in the large green chair, composing with my pencil.

Can I fully articulate why this object is the one that is most meaningful to me? No. But that’s the beauty of reliquary. It’s a word that holds mystery.
It took me five years after my father’s death before I could write that. I still don’t feel that I’ve done him justice. But I know that I miss him, not just on Father’s Day but on most days. Maybe that’s how we truly honor our fathers.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Cuba, Obama, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Whatever gifts President Obama may be bringing to his hosts in Cuba this week, it’s pretty certain that he’s not giving them one of the handwritten copies of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And yet, in a roundabout way, America has Cuba to thank for it.

Lincoln wrote five copies of the Gettysburg Address that we know of, and not all of them before the dedication ceremony at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. In fact, the last one that Lincoln wrote was a kind of do-over, in March 1864. A Colonel Alexander Bliss was collecting manuscripts for a facsimile volume of Autograph Leaves of Our Country’s Authors and wanted the Gettysburg Address to be among them. But alas, the first version Lincoln sent was missing a signature and a heading, among other elements, so would he mind penning another?

The ever-patient president obliged (proceeds from the book were going to a charitable organization to help the Union soldiers). Not only did he sign it but dated it, as well. This one made the cut for Bliss’s book.

Bliss’s descendants sold Lincoln’s original at auction in New York City, in 1949. A former Ambassador to the United States purchased it. His name was Oscar B. Cintas, and he was a businessman from Havana, Cuba. 

When he died, he willed that the copy become the property of the people of the United States. The aptly named Bliss Copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address now resides in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bless Jon Meacham’s Heart

Jon Meacham was relaying an amusing anecdote to the overflow crowd that had come to hear him speak at the Miami Book Fair last weekend. He concluded it with, “Or as we would say in the South, bless her heart.” The story had been a warm-up to something larger: his discussion on his new book about George Herbert Walker Bush. That’s what the audience had come for.

And something larger still.

A few holdouts who have to be from out of town still do a bit of a head snap when they hear “Miami” and “book” in the same breath, bless their hearts. But readers know otherwise. Mitchell Kaplan and Eduardo Padrón, the two visionaries behind the fair—Mitchell the impresario of Books &Books, Eduardo Padrón the president of Miami Dade College—have been orchestrating this better-than-Woodstock-for-readers event for 32 years now. Each year, it grows larger.

Bring 600 authors together for two days, and in any given hour there are as many as 18 concurrent sessions taking place. O, the word choose. And oh, the many books.

“Have Half”

And so if you are a reader, you come for the books and the talks. But you come, too, for the moments of transformation, the ones you put your own stamp on—the moments when a stillness comes over you as the words of the author, and sometimes those of the audience, go beyond intellect to a deeper, larger place.

You could feel it as Jon Meacham spoke—of a former president who, as a youngster, was nicknamed “Have Half” because of his empathy. Of a father whose heart broke when his young daughter died. Of an imperfect leader who always knew that the office was larger than the person holding it.
As Jon spoke, you could all but feel the audience, many of whom would never describe themselves as Republicans, succumb to the larger story that Jon was telling. The one that went beyond passing judgment and that instead spoke to tolerance, and civic duty, and compassion.

Sharecroppers and sinners

It was much the same with Congressman John Lewis. He spoke with the kinetic power of a preacher and the quietude of one who has witnessed both compassion and its flip side. He described the five-dollar suit he bought when he joined the Civil Rights movement (and still has). Sharecropper: that is what his father was. The word startled with its many implications, and his story took us deeper.

When Gerald Posner relayed the many sins of the Vatican bank, there was neither malice nor triumph in his voice. Instead, there was hope that on some level, there could be redemption.

Darkness visible

Stacy Schiff spoke in her elegant way of how absolute the darkness was in Salem in 1692, solid and terrifying and fraught with dire consequence. That same darkness, Antony Beevor would tell us, descended upon the soldiers who fought in the frozen forest during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

And it is darkness that clings to many soldiers of any war, in the form of PTSD. In one of the most emotion-charged events of the fair, the actors Paul Giamatti and David Strathairn performed readings from Sophocles, the ancient Greek tragedian—searing, agonizing, gut-wrenching readings—the kind that can reach into that deeper place where suffering lies and become a way to climb out of the darkness.

The Rabbi’s thanks

Rabbi Harold Kushner also invoked the ancient Greeks in his talk. Among the audience members who went to the microphone after his presentation was a woman who didn’t have a question, only a message.

She told the Rabbi how, years earlier when her young child had died, his books had been her single salvation. She never thought she would get a chance to thank him. But now here, in this room, she could.

Only a few stalwarts managed to hold back tears. The rest of us didn’t really care that we couldn’t.

“Proofreading Woman”

Not every moment at the book fair, of course, is so tearful. There was the smile of sheer joy that first-time author Rebecca Rego Barry had when for the first time she set eyes, and hands, on her book—it had come directly from the printer to the fair at the last possible moment.

And then there is the catharsis known as the Rock Bottom Remainders, the band of writers—as in musical band—where Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom and other authors let loose with exuberant, raucous abandon.

Where else can you hear the song “Proofreading Woman”? And with the immortal lyric, “She never says ‘between you and I’.”

Okay, so you had to be there. But that is, in fact, the point. We lovers of books come to the Miami Book Fair to be among fellow pilgrims, to seek and bear witness to the larger stories, to recognize ourselves in each other, and to dwell, however fleetingly, in that deeper place.

Bless our hearts. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Are you a true bi-tech-tual?

There are those who will tell you that “bitechtual” means one who uses both Android and Apple products (I’m one). But I think we logophiles can do better when it comes to using and defining this playful word.

Think of bilingual and bicoastal: they both assume a pronounced division between a commonality. For bilingual, it’s two different languages; for bicoastal, two different coasts. Has anyone ever confused Urdu for English, or the Pacific for the Atlantic?

So let’s give “bitechtual” the same clean dichotomy: a pronounced division between high technology and low, fast tech and slow, digital and old-fashioned. When we define it this way, that makes a lot more of us bitechtual.

I keystroked this blog on a desktop, but first I wrote it on paper. I count on the Breaking News alerts from the New York Times that come through on my smartphone and tablet, but I still savor the rustle and fold of the Sunday paper version. My husband and I dip into different sections, folding them back and swapping them out as the Sunday afternoon progresses, sharing the singular act of reading in a way that only the actual newsprint allows. (Then we recycle it.)

My young friend Sofia (who is bilingual) watches with rapt attention as her older sister swipes across images of antelopes on the iPad. But her little three-year-old hands also reach eagerly for the Beatrix Potter books on my bookshelf.

I fact-check through Google any number of times through the day. It’s fast, efficient and, provided you pull from reputable sources, accurate. But these are discrete and often disparate items I’m checking. There is still something to be said for seeing forest as well as trees, so please don’t try to take away my print edition of Word Menu and the context it provides.

Being bitechtual in this way lets us adapt technologies to the circumstances. Despite the dichotomy between paper and pixel, “bitechtual” as we’ve now defined it carries the suggestion of coexistence as well. Even though my mother had to remind me the other day to check my old and tattered address book for the number that wasn’t programmed into my phone, I think I will always be bitechtual.

 With one exception.

I’ve realized that, when it comes to geography and directions, I am utterly a-techtual. It’s almost as if the GPS Lady knows I can’t read a paper map, so she feels free to send me off anywhere but where I wanted to be. Well, there’s always the sun.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

So long to the skeuomorph? (Apple takes a bite)

The story in today’s New York Times (a front page story at that, in the Business section) that Apple may do away with skeuomorphs should prompt word lovers to take quick action.

Before skeuomorphs disappear, and with them the word, let’s have a last fond look at this linguistic concoction of the Greeks. This mouthful of a word is a combination of the Greek skeuos (vessel or implement) and morph (form). In essence, a skeuomorph uses visual or aural cues from an earlier object to help define a newer object.

An icon of an analog alarm clock signals to us that this is the clock or timer function on our digital appliance. The image of the alarm clock is the skeuomorph for the digital timer.

Skeuomorphs are not just pictures. They’re also sounds and movements. Click! goes the digital camera, brrringg goes the smartphone. The “page” turns in an electronic “book.”

Skeuomorphs have helped familiar objects of old make the new look familiar. Given a physical form, the virtual seem less virtual.

But such skeuomorphs may well vanish from Apple products—the legal pad icon for the iPad’s notes app; the wooden bookshelf on which e-books are displayed.

Which brings up this skeuomorphic question (I’m trying to get the most out of this word while I still know how to spell it): if the graphic trappings used to symbolize an e-book disappear, should an e-book even be called a “book” anymore?

Throughout bookdom’s history, certain words have signaled biblio events. Scroll. Tablet (of the kind that Julius Caesar popularized). Incunabula. Codex. Perhaps book should be reserved for those three-dimensional objects made of paper and, for a good part of their existence, pre-bound by the printer or publisher.

What we read electronically, then, is no longer an e-book. It’s an e-------[to be figured out].

One more thing: the very icon that symbolizes Apple is itself skeuomorphic. It’s that object we know to be a fruit and that makes a crunching sound when we take a bite out of it. Will the apple in Apple vanish as well?

Something to chew on—skeuomorphically, that is.