February 4, 2013

Boring the interns


Faxes! You can look at them while you’re on the phone. The 20th century is the best century.

Man, I can’t wait until I’m old like Michael Kinsley and can write pieces about “the way things were,” back when you occasionally had to stand close to a window to get cellphone service. Kinsley has a post up at the newly redesigned New Republic that gives all kinds of great details both about past technologies (oily fax paper? I think I know what he’s talking about?) and the people who abused them. For instance, John Osborne:

You see, children, as recently as the late ’70s (well, they seem recent to me) the only way to get a manuscript from a distant location—even New York—to Washington immediately was to dictate it over the phone. Our White House correspondent, a well-marinated Southerner named John Osborne (no relation to the playwright), was very comfortable with this arrangement and kept doing it long after it ceased to be necessary. Even as the editor, I often had to take down John’s last-minute copy. As taught by the Associated Press, he would spell out certain words he thought might be difficult. He’d say, “…President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, that’s A-D-V-I-S-O-R…”

Equally entertaining is Kinsley’s shuffling through his old correspondence, which turns up irate letters from Irving Howe, irate letters from other people, a scrap of paper that says “Goldmuntz. Sort of a high assertion-to-fact ratio,” and a letter from Christopher Hitchens, who unites pity and dismissal in a masterful mere two lines:

“Dear Michael,

Thank you for lunch. You had such a hunted look when you asked if there was any business I wanted to discuss—doesn’t anybody like you for yourself anymore? I will in the fullness of time propose things to you. But I feel you need a breather at the moment.”

On the topic of old papers of no use to anyone now, but which I refuse to get rid of, despite the fact that it will be years before I can bore interns, I myself have some gems in the form of a couple of ratty photocopies of old reader’s reports commissioned by my previous employer and written by supremely intelligent men of letters Ernst Pawel and Henry Tylbor, who exercised their critical talents on a whole lot of random books they were sent to review. Here’s a sampling:

“The book is likely to be made into a magnificently bad French film which will do well in France and almost nowhere else.” –Tylbor

“An anthropological-psychological discourse on anxiety and fear in life and art which, if it weren’t written in a style that makes it appear like a German translation from turgid Middle-High Abyssinian, might conceivably be of interest to some publisher of small-bore pedantic marginalia.” –Pawel

“This book is like a greasy knish, which seems harmless until you swallow it.” –Tylbor

“The place is Macedonia and the time is post-war Europe. What is amazing about it is that the place is teeming with goats. Nobody knows whose goats they are or who bred them. The only thing they know is that they are there. Before the local authorities can set up a puppet government, more goats arrive but it doesn’t make any difference because by that time the reader has drifted away from boredom.” –Pawel

I could read this stuff all week …



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.