Robert Gottlieb, the editor of a sizable and influential portion of American literature, passed away the past week. It feels like there has recently been a steady stream of literary, cultural, political figures passing away in their nineties. I remember when I first came across the phrase “the pig in the python” reading Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X. It describes the sheer demographic bulk of the generation born post World War 2. But Gottlieb, born in 1932, was before even that. He was young enough to avoid the war, but of age to provide to the actual baby boomers when they were ready to read. We haven’t really got to the real pork yet.
I was taken with a certain detail in the Times’ obit.
A sickly, lonely, unhappy child, he sought refuge in books, which he sped through. As a teenager, he said, he read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in a day and Marcel Proust’s monumental “Remembrance of Things Past” in a week.
“I would read three to four books a day after school, and could read for 16 hours at a time,” he told The Times in 1980. “Mind you, that’s all I did. I belonged to three lending libraries and the public library.”https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/14/books/robert-gottlieb-dead.html
I’m not sure it is possible to really read War and Peace in a day. Maybe there is quite a lot of truth to the story, but it feels akin to the fact that Montaigne was supposedly raised to speak Latin as his first language in 16th Century France. I don’t want to doubt the precocity, but such exploits usually have a few caveats.
To whatever extent that it is true, I am nevertheless jealous. To sit and read in such relentless fashion I need to either be on a flight, or somehow similarly trapped in place. There is some immersive quality unique to literature when you force yourself onward into a novel, beyond the easy limit of your attention.