Wednesday Apr. 29, 2015

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What I Like and Don’t Like

I like to say hello and goodbye.
I like to hug but not shake hands.
I prefer to wave or nod. I enjoy
the company of strangers pushed
together in elevators or subways.
I like talking to cab drivers
but not receptionists. I like
not knowing what to say.
I like talking to people I know
but care nothing about. I like
inviting anyone anywhere.
I like hearing my opinions
tumble out of my mouth
like toddlers tied together
while crossing the street,
trusting they won’t be squashed
by fate. I like greeting-card clichés
but not dressing up or down.
I like being appropriate
but not all the time.
I could continue with more examples
but I’d rather give too few
than too many. The thought
of no one listening anymore—
I like that least of all.

"What I Like and Don’t Like” by Philip Schultz from Failure. © Harcourt, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of publishing colossus William Randolph Hearst, who was born in San Francisco in 1863. He demanded the helm of his first paper, the San Francisco Examiner, when he was 23 and his father acquired the paper as payment for a gambling debt. It wasn't long before his papers had a reputation for sensationalism, or as it came to be called, "yellow journalism" — one of his writers said "A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut." On the other hand, Hearst newspapers also employed some of the best writers in the business, like Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Jack London.

He and Joseph Pulitzer had an open rivalry in the New York market. Reporters from Hearst's Morning Journal and Pulitzer's World went beyond scooping each other to stealing stories outright from the competition. Hearst had the last laugh when he ran a story about the death of Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz — an anagram of "we pilfer the news" — and Pulitzer's paper took the bait, even adding made-up dateline information. This prank was harmless enough, but when the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor in 1898, the two papers both published a supposedly suppressed cablegram saying the explosion was not an accident. There was no such cable, but it boosted sales of both papers to record levels, and the public demanded that President McKinley declare war on Spain. As the famous story goes, artist Frederick Remington was sent to Cuba by Hearst to cover the war. He wrote home, "There is no war. Request to be recalled," only to be told, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." And so he did.

And it's the birthday of the man who once said, "Jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with": bandleader, pianist, and composer Edward Kennedy — better known as Duke — Ellington, born in Washington, D.C., in 1899. He composed more than 3,000 songs in his lifetime, enduring jazz classics like "Mood Indigo" (1930), "It Don't Mean a Thing (if it Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932), and "Sophisticated Lady" (1933), and he led his big band from 1923 until his death in 1974. His nickname came from his dapper demeanor and easy grace: His mother, Daisy, had worked hard to teach him elegant manners, and he'd learned the lessons well, so his childhood friends took to calling him "Duke."

He took piano lessons as a boy, but skipped more of these than he attended, and it wasn't until he started hanging around a poolroom and hearing ragtime and stride piano, played by the likes of Turner Layton and Eubie Blake, that his passion was kindled. For what it's worth, he also credited the kindling to more earthy causes, saying, "I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right."

It's the birthday of poet C.P. Cavafy (books by this author), born in Alexandria, Egypt (1863). His parents were Greek, and he wrote his poetry in modern Greek, but lived in Alexandria almost his entire life. In 1889, he got a job as an unpaid clerk at the city's Irrigation Office, and he stayed there until he retired 30 years later. He lived with his mother until he was 36, in an apartment just above a brothel, and across the street from a church and a hospital. Cavafy once said, "Where could I live better? Below, the brothel caters to the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die."

It's the birthday of editor Robert Gottlieb (books by this author), born in New York City (1931). In 1957, 26-year-old Gottlieb was a young editor at Simon & Schuster, when the company was in turmoil and nobody seemed to be in charge. That summer, he received a 75-page manuscript for a book called Catch-18, by Joseph Heller. Gottlieb thought it was brilliant and offered to publish it. Heller and Gottlieb worked on the book for years; Gottlieb would tape pieces of the manuscript and Heller's handwritten notes all over his office walls and desk and then rearrange passages. Gottlieb was a tough editor, and he pored through every line, demanding that Heller rewrite whenever he thought it could be better.

One day, Gottlieb got the bad news that best-selling novelist Leon Uris was about to publish a book called Mila 18, and Gottlieb insisted that there could not be two books with the number "18" in the title during the same publishing season. They had a long brainstorming session and went through every possible number — they discarded "11" because it sounded too much like Ocean's Eleven, and Heller wanted "14," but Gottlieb didn't think it was funny enough. Gottlieb was so worried about the title that he lay awake at night thinking about it, and the number "22" came to him. For whatever reason, he thought it was a funny number, and Heller agreed. Later that year, Catch-22 (1961) was published, and by spring of 1963, it had sold more than 1 million copies.

Gottlieb went on to work with writers Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, John Cheever, and many more. He was the editor of The New Yorker from 1987 to 1992.

He said, "I have fixed more sentences than most people have read in their lives."

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