Near Death Experiences and Others by Robert Gottlieb 2018
Think of a dear friend who is intellectual, smart, very well read, interested in the arts, witty, ironic, funny, and endlessly interesting and that’s Gottlieb. The long time publisher and editor (He once said he had edited more pages than others have read!), cultural and literary critic, and balletophile, Gottlieb has collected 52 essays in this volume which by the way has a wonderfully designed, colorful, eye-catching cover. Most of the essays were initially printed in the New York Review of Books and began as a book review and expanded into an exhaustive exploration of the subjects, a fascinating array of writers (Thomas Wolfe, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Parker), lyricists (Lorenz Hart), conductors (Toscanini and Bernstein), singers and actors (Ethel Merman, Sinatra, Esther Williams, Mary Astor, Setsuko Hara), and ballet folks (Balanchine, Peter Martin, and a raft of Russian and American dancers).
The weird opening essay on near death experiences can be skipped, and I’m supposing it was Gottlieb’s way of tweaking our interest and exploring a weird phenomenon which interested him. Likewise, the last 20% of the book are reviews of specific ballet performances or commentaries on dancers that he wrote over a period of many years in a regular column for the New York Observer. The essays sandwiched in between these two sections, however, are spectacular—-erudite, clever, and deeply researched. In researching an essay about modern Romance novels (which to my surprise is a genre he actually likes!), he must have read at least 100 books by dozens of writers, many of whom I would have dismissed as inferior, but he finds some gold among that dross.
I loved Gottlieb’s earlier memoir, ‘Avid Reader’, and look forward to reading his other collection of essays, ‘Lives and Letters’. I find him irresistable, though many will judge him to be an egotistical name dropper and way too self-important. For those critics, I say get over it.
I loved the recent movie Turn Every Page which showed him and Robert Caro working on Caro’s fifth volume of the LBJ series. Caro is among the star studded cast of writers whom Gottlieb has edited over the years, including Joseph Heller, John Cheever, Doris Lessing, Bill Clinton, John Le’Carre, Katharine Graham and others, and his ability to recall personal details and writerly quirks and habits is wonderfully entertaining.
If you love 20th C literature and the publishing game, read Gottlieb. You will enjoy the experience.