Posts Tagged ‘Malcolm Margolin’

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

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Steve Wasserman is coming home! Meet the new publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books.

Sunday, February 28th, 2016
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Welcome home, Steve!

As I write, Steve Wasserman is shoveling his stuff into boxes. At least I hope he is. Steve, who has been editor at large for Yale University Press, is coming home to California at last, and it can’t happen fast enough for us. “The call of Berkeley was very strong,” he said. “I am something of a native son. I have missed California like the amputee is said to miss the phantom limb.”

The occasion is indeed one for celebration. On July 1, he will become publisher and executive director of Heyday Books, an outfit that publishes books about … California. The publishing house is situated on University Avenue in Berkeley, and you can’t get more Berkeley than that. The cover photo for his Facebook page was quickly changed to show a panorama of Berkeley, with the university’s landmark campanile. Steve grew up and went to university in this city on the Bay.

I’ve written about Steve’s time as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book for nearly a decade, a golden age when it was the best book review section in the country, bar none. He always had an eye for the era; for what might be relevant, rather than immediate. He was always willing to take a chance, and trusted that boldness, innovation, and intelligence would find an audience. I was proud to be a part of it.

Those traits served him well as editor at large at Yale University Press, where he “brought luster and allure to the Yale list, acquiring important books by such figures as Greil Marcus, Michael Roth, Martha Hodes, David Thomson, and David Rieff, publishing them with flair and gusto,” said  John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press. “He will continue to consult with YUP, particularly editing several key authors still to be published.”

During those years also, he was a principal architect for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, now the largest book festival in the country.

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A life in books.

At Heyday, he replaces Malcolm Margolin, who founded the company in 1974. Margolin seems pleased about the appointment, as is everyone else: “I can’t imagine anyone with better professional skills, more depth and variety of experience, and a more impressive record of accomplishment and public service. He knows California and its many cultures with intimacy, associates easily with the best writers and deepest thinkers everywhere, and his ample playfulness and wit have always been at the service of a humane social vision.”

According to Berkleyside:

One area he will examine is Heyday’s current distribution model. While the press publishes numerous important and beautiful books about California every year, the books are only sold in California bookstores, although they are also available online. Heyday does not have a national distributor and Wasserman does not know yet if that is because people outside the state are not interested. California as a topic is often denigrated by the East Coast, he said. Wasserman hopes to enhance Heyday’s reputation and showcase its role in interpreting California.

Steve sounds more than ready to come home and take on the new fight: “It has long been the case that California has been regarded by people who don’t live there, particularly the dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanites, who are the most provincial people in the country, as a strange backwater. Very often things California are dismissed as regional, not of national interest. Of course, all of that is rubbish. I would like to publish books that while interesting Californians, have broader resonance.”

“We couldn’t be more excited about bringing him back to California,” said Stanford alumna Emmerich Anklam (class of ’15) on the Heyday staff. “To use a favorite phrase from Steve’s predecessor Malcolm Margolin, ‘What a joy!'”

And below (pardon the blurry video quality) – this is for you, Steve.