My Mistakeby Daniel Menaker
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice “At the epicenter of literary New York, Menaker is an irreverent guide to the publishing world’s inner workings . . . His own journey, compelled by his self-knowledge and sense of humor, elevates this memoir into more than witty chatter.” — Chicago Tribune/i>/i>
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice “At the epicenter of literary New York, Menaker is an irreverent guide to the publishing world’s inner workings . . . His own journey, compelled by his self-knowledge and sense of humor, elevates this memoir into more than witty chatter.” — Chicago Tribune “Impossible to resist.” — Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad In these pages Daniel Menaker brings us a “ruefully funny insider’s tour of the publishing world” (Vogue.com). Haunted by a self-doubt sharpened by his role in his brother’s unexpected death, he offers wry, hilarious observations on publishing, child-rearing, parent-losing, and the writing life. But as time passes, we witness a moving, thoughtful meditation on years well lived, well read, and well spent. Full of mistakes, perhaps. But full of effort, full of accomplishment, full of life. “Tender, smart and witty, this book is truly unputdownable.” — Real Simple “Energetic and exhilarating . . . [Menaker’s] clever, fast-paced prose makes you stop and think and wonder.” — New York Times Book Review “At once jaunty and erudite . . . The writing simply shines.” — San Francisco Chronicle
Menaker, once an editor at the New Yorker and Random House, grew up in the now-endangered class of New York communist intellectuals that had the nerve to call an elementary school (his alma mater) Little Red. He writes here of his hectic childhood with well-preserved romanticism. The result is charming. The memoir’s title phrase—it recurs, songlike, throughout—refers primarily to Menaker’s small but pivotal role in his elder brother’s sudden death when they were both young men. That event stands in sharp contrast to Menaker’s own slow battle with lung cancer. Mortality, that “Great Temporariness,” haunts this humble book. Menaker is at his best when irreverent: chuckling at aptronyms (people aptly named), or deflating New Yorker legends (William Shawn and Tina Brown, most notably). Still, in this book of years, gossip is secondary to the writer’s own musings and memories. Menaker leaves the reader with a sense of the vast triumph that is a life well lived. (Nov.)
A well-known editor's funny and thoughtful memoir of wrong turns, both in and out of publishing. As Menaker (A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, 2010, etc.) sums up his life, he can't get past his mistakes--the big ones he'll never stop paying for and the small ones that changed his life. As a young man, he goaded his older brother during a game of touch football, leading to his brother's fatal injury and leaving himself with a lifetime of guilt. He smoked, quit and got lung cancer years later. He began working for the New Yorker, where it was easy to sweat the small stuff under the famously idiosyncratic editorship of William Shawn. Urged to find another job, he stayed for 26 years, skating on thin ice even as he climbed the editorial chain. There were rules of decorum ("You don't say 'Hi' to Mr. Shawn--you say 'Hello' ") and regular surprises on what would or would not pass the Shawn smell test. When Menaker suggested ending a story with a mild pun, Shawn told him it "would destroy the magazine." "What you want to write is an article," Shawn admonished him at one point, "and the New Yorker doesn't publish…articles." On the plus side, Menaker learned high-level editing, not just from Shawn, but from the contrasting examples of magazine stalwarts Roger Angell (rough and tumble) and William Maxwell (kind and gentle). After the Tina Brown coup, Menaker moved on to Random House, where he eventually became editor-in-chief, wrestling to stay afloat and to stay alive. Menaker doesn't just recount experiences; he digs away at them with wit and astute reflection, looking for the pattern of a life that defies easy profit-and-loss lessons.
“Energetic and exhilarating . . . [Menaker’s] clever, fast-paced prose makes you stop and think and wonder.”
—New York Times Book Review
"[A] beguiling sketch of a literary life... [and] a wryly personal history of magazine and book publishing over the past four decades. A-"
“In this insightful memoir, Menaker leads his readers down the hallowed halls of The New Yorker... But the book isn’t all business. Menaker also delves into the ups and downs of his personal life, from summers at his uncle’s camp, to the death of his mother. Tender, smart and witty, this book is truly unputdownable.”
"At the epicenter of literary New York, Menaker is an irreverent guide to the publishing world's inner workings. . . [and] tells great stories about editors William Shawn (quirky), Tina Brown (in hot pursuit of what's hot), William Maxwell, Roger Angell and others. . . His own journey, compelled by his self-knowledge and sense of humor, elevates this memoir into more than witty chatter."
—Chicago Tribune, Editor's Choice
"A ruefully funny insider’s tour of the publishing world.”
"[A] sparkling gem of a memoir... The writing simply shines; it's at once jaunty and erudite. I kept wondering, "How does he do that?"
—Katie Hafner, San Francisco Chronicle
"Menaker gives readers a glimpse into the less-than-rarefied world of fiction — publishing, marketing, buying and selling. And it's fascinating. . . But Menaker also can be funny and lighthearted."
"[Menaker] is an expert at turning those proverbial life-lemons into lemonades; his description of his protracted recent struggle with lung cancer, for example, winds up being one of the memoir's most inspiring and invigorating sections."
"Menaker's memoir captures a pair of lost worlds: the old lefty Greenwich Village, where he grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, and the byzantine kingdom of The New Yorker, where he worked for 26 years, mostly during the peculiar editorship of William Shawn."
—Johns Hopkins Magazine
"[Menaker] contemplates the origins, happenstance, and consequences of his devotion to literature in a warm, humorous, on-point memoir. Amiably self-deprecating, Menaker is a deft sketch artist, vividly portraying loved ones (especially his older brother, who goaded him to excel and whose early death is the source of depthless sorrow) and colleagues (his portraits of New Yorker staff are hilarious, barbed, and tender). His insider view of publishing is eye-opening and entertaining."
"[Menaker] writes here of his hectic childhood with well-preserved romanticism. The result is charming. [He] is at his best when irreverent: chuckling at aptronyms (people aptly named), or deflating New Yorker legends (William Shawn and Tina Brown, most notably). Still, in this book of years, gossip is secondary to the writer’s own musings and memories. Menaker leaves the reader with a sense of the vast triumph that is a life well lived."
"A well-known editor’s funny and thoughtful memoir of wrong turns, both in and out of publishing. . . Menaker doesn’t just recount experiences; he digs away at them with wit and astute reflection, looking for the pattern of a life that defies easy profit-and-loss lessons."
—Kirkus, starred review
"Menaker examines a life lived well if not perfectly. He’s bold enough to explore his years at The New Yorker, where he stayed for 26 years despite discouragement from William Shawn, and the perpetual self-doubt that has dogged him, particularly owing to his role in his brother’s inadvertent death. Certainly of interest to memoir fans and literati."
"How can something written so accurately be so witty? Don't you have to cheat a bit to wring the humor out of life? Daniel Menaker has constructed a compelling tale that irises down to a powerful and emotional climax and is delivered in exacting prose woven into affecting poetry."
"My Mistake is only sometimes rueful. It is also frequently funny and splendidly precise as it takes a look back at a life led in the world of magazine editing and book publishing, a behind-the-scenes rumination of a time gone by. Intriguing now, it will be necessary later; readers will be thankful for this quirky and delightful piece of history."
—Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys
"Daniel Menaker's distinctive journey through his own memories is impossible to resist—and not just for those of us with an appetite for literary anecdote. My Mistake is also the story of literary New York, with keen, vivid impressions from Menaker's Forties childhood, Cold War coming-of-age, and long career at the epicenter of the publishing industry during the onslaught of the Digital Age."
—Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
"I can't remember when I've read a memoir this—let's say 'soulful.' Funny, sad, and wryly self-aware, Menaker shines a bright light on his own background, our literary life, and his own path through it."
—James Gleick, author of The Information
"My Mistake brings to mind the poetic prose of James Agee. Menaker's stories of life as fiction editor at The New Yorker and Random House are a delight, the way he tells them simply perfect. Humorous, thoughtful, heartbreaking and brave. I have not enjoyed a memoir more."
—Julie Klam, New York Times bestselling author of Please Excuse My Daughter
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Read an Excerpt
However consciously or un-, The New Yorker, a kind of Jonestown of the literary/journalistic realm, encourages in its employees an ethos of superiority, essentialness, and disregard for fad and fashion. Shawn himself, in his words and demeanor, appears to disavow any self-importance. He wants to be taken as a quiet, modest man who puts the greatness of the institution he runs above all else. This faux-modest version of occupational vanity, in combination with native timidity, keeps very intelligent people in the same, often dead-end, jobs for years, simply because they can say, in this modestly quiet voice, that they work for The New Yorker. Great institutions, so long as they are small, will often (a) eventually take themselves too seriously and (b) try to camouflage their pride with self-effacement.
Shawn always claims that The New Yorker does not and cannot, with integrity, try to attend to what a reader might want to read. We publish what we like, and hope that some people might want to read it too. This modest formulation of hauteur finds its best expression in a remark made by a Checker when the magazine finally breaks down and adds a real table of contents — as opposed to the almost microscopically small and cryptic listing that seemed on occasion to fly around and land obscurely in Goings On About Town. The real table of contents arrives shortly after I do, and the new feature has been kept a secret, and when we all get our First Run Copies on a Monday morning, a collective gasp of dismay goes up from the Checking Department. A colleague finally says, “This is just awful! How could we do such a thing.” Being green, I say, “Well, don’t you think it’s a good idea for readers to know what’s in the magazine?” She says, “It’s none of the readers’ business what’s in the magazine.”
Meet the Author
DANIEL MENAKER began his career as a fact checker at The New Yorker, where he became an editor and worked for twenty-six years. A former book editor, Menaker is the author of six books; he has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, Parents, Redbook, and many others.
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Brilliant. A telling, warm and moving memoir. I recommend it.