Posts Tagged ‘Steve Wasserman’

Steve Wasserman on the Penguin Random House acquisition of Simon & Schuster (hint: it’s not the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)

Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
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Not this.

Yesterday the Book Haven posted man-of-letters Steve Wasserman‘s COVID reading (the list has proved quite popular!) – but he was posting as a connoisseur, not in his role as publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books. He arrived from East Coast in 2016 to head that small, adventurous California-themed publisher, and it’s been on the rise ever since. He had most recently served as editor-at-large for Yale University Press. Before that, he was my editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review when it was the best, most adventurous book section in the country, bar none.

Below, his thoughts about the major book event in today’s news.

Department of My Two Cents: The news today that Bertelsmann, the German owner of the publishing empire Penguin Random House, has made an all-cash offer of $2 billion to acquire Simon & Schuster, continues the relentless conglomeration that has marked global publishing for the past forty-plus years. If approved, the deal will leave only four gigantic publishing enterprises dominating the landscape of American publishing. The prospect is thought by some to pose a threat to the nation’s delicate ecology of literary and cultural life. Considerable alarm over the fate of the so-called mid-list book and a further contracting of diversity in the marketplace is widespread. How real are these fears?

Berkeley’s natty man of letters

The predicament facing us is best understood against the longstanding backdrop of at least two overlapping and contending crises: the first is the profound structural transformation that has for some decades been roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; the second is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained and serious argument. These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. The moral and cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be a much-overlooked commercial opportunity for the plethora of smaller, independent publishers who will likely be a chief beneficiary.

The struggle for market dominance, impelled by the continuing threat posed by Amazon, is, for many smaller publishers, akin to the internecine battles mounted by the gods on Mt. Olympus. If past experience is a useful guide to the future, we need not overly fear such imperial mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonable low prices, been available to so many people. Diversity, in all realms, is increasingly the watchword guiding publishing decisions as the readership expands and demands to be heard. In a word, all publishers understand that profits are to be had by appealing to an insurgent millennial culture even as the old habits die. Today, you would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer. There is money to be made in culture and victory will go to those publishers, whether large or small, who are nimble and imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lie all around them.

But I am no Cassandra. It would be a mistake to regard the quartet of publishing behemoths that will remain after the likely approval of the Bertelsmann acquisition of Simon & Schuster, as synonymous with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Opportunities abound. It’s almost enough to give one hope.

38 books I bet you didn’t read during COVID! Steve Wasserman’s reading list will shame us all…

Monday, November 23rd, 2020
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So what have you been doing during COVID, you bunch of wastrels? Huh? Huh?? Huh??? Eating a lot, drinking too much, complaining of ennui, watching TV, not working on the neglected novel you intended to finish, posting cat pictures and videos, oversleeping, baiting and snarling at each other on Twitter? At least that’s what I gather from my visits online.

The Hero of Heyday, Steve Wasserman

Behold and weep! Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman has given us his list of COVID reading (in no particular order) since the shelter-in-place edict was issued eight months ago, way back in mid-March 2020. It will shame us all. Here what he’s been reading as he hunkers down in Berkeley:

The War for Gaul by Julius Caesar, translated by James J. O’Donnell
The Ruins Lessons: Meaning and Material in Western Culture by Susan Stewart
The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar by Peter Stothard
God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
Inside Story by Martin Amis
Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis
Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab by Bohumil Hrabal
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; The Prime of Life; Force of Circumstance; All Said and Done; Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre – all by Simone de Beauvoir
The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre
Tête-à-tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley
Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 by Agnès Poirier
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross
The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance by RJ Smith
Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia.
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson
Murder in the Movies by David Thomson
Epidemics and Society by Frank M. Snowden
The Decameron by Boccaccio
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe by Anthony Grafton
Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds
Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War by Vincent Brown
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh
My Life in 100 Objects by Margaret Randall
Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis by Martin J. Sherwin
Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest by Lawrence Roberts
Garner’s Quotations by Dwight Garner
Notebooks: 1936-1947 by Victor Serge
The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady
Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution by David A. Bell

(Original watercolor by Wendy Ruebman)

Steve Wasserman: making his mark on California publishing – and writing the next chapter of Berkeley’s Heyday Books, too.

Monday, March 30th, 2020
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Making his mark, as always

Steve Wasserman has 15,000 books –all of them choice, and all of them on display at the offices of Heyday Books, where he is publisher. I don’t know how this compares to other Bay Area private collections, but it must be high in the rankings. Certainly when it comes to quality:

“I’m a snail who’s hostage to an oversized shell,” he jokes during a tour of his library. Unlike most personal collections, Wasserman’s is intrepid and surprising: belles lettres, poetry, literary criticism. Black history, civil rights, California history. Fiction from The Arabian Nights to Stefan Zweig.

“This is all wheat, no chaff,” he says with pride. Turn a corner and find Antiquity, Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, geology and dinosaurs. Civil War, the Holocaust, Vietnam. Art, dance, architecture.

“Books are like Aladdin’s lamp,” Wasserman enthuses. “You don’t rub the lamp, the geni doesn’t come out. And a book that lies on the shelf is in something of a coma. Writers need readers to complete the work.” 

We’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places. Now Edward Guthmann, a former San Francisco Chronicle writer, has written about him, too. He has just published a profile of Steve, one of our favorite subjects, for the current Oakland Magazine. But the best parts always are the bits from Steve himself. He has an enviable way with words. And a sense of style.

Back at his table at Chez Panisse (photo: Moi)

Guthmann captures the trademark nattiness of Steve in this paragraph: “There’s a watchful, canny look in his eyes. On the day of our meeting, he’s dressed in a retro, semi-dandy style: Purple corduroy trousers, purple necktie, black vest, button-down white shirt, and cuff links. His shoes are two-toned, brown and buff, and a handkerchief blooms in the breast pocket of his wool blazer — a gallant sartorial gesture.”

Steve was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review when it was the best book section in the nation, bar none. Then he did a stint as editor at large at the Yale University Press. What lured him back to Berkeley? You can read the reasons in the piece, but this some of those factors were Heyday’s small-scale “lack of bureaucracy” and the chance  “to write Heyday’s second chapter and to make a mark on independent California publishing. Plus, Alice Waters promised me I could have back my old table at Chez Panisse.”

Steve has a remarkable gift for the crisp, polished, quotable phrase that makes me weep with envy. Here’s an example:

“I feel a little bit like Rip Van Winkle,” Wasserman says. Soon after his return to the East Bay, he took his dog, Pepper, for a walk in Codornices Park in the Berkeley Hills and entered a small redwood grove he hadn’t seen in 50 years. “It was a summer day, the sunshine dappling through the trees, and the smell of the redwoods braided together with eucalyptus and oak and that particular kind of barometric pressure that suffuses the Bay Area, which is very light on the skin. None of the East Coast humidity. I stood there, my eyes welling up with tears. It was almost, I’m tempted to say, a Proustian moment.”

Shit, Steve. Braided. The smells were braided together. I wish I’d said that. (I know, I know … I will). 

Read the whole thing here.

Poet Robert Hass at Heyday – on his new book, ecology, lost friends, and Czesław Miłosz. It’s all on Soundcloud!

Friday, February 7th, 2020
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Lunchtime guest Bob Hass

One of the little-known pleasures of Bay Area life is the Heyday Books lunchtime conversations series in Berkeley. Great company, light lunch, and excellent speakers – Robert Alter, David Ulin, among them. Because of the series, I’m running up my mileage back and forth to Berkeley, which, apart from rising gas costs and wear-and-tear on my old Honda, is always a good thing.

And so I made the trek last month to hear Robert Hass, whose latest collection, Summer Snow, is getting a lot of attention. I wrote about that here.

I recognize that not everyone will be able to zap over to San Pablo Boulevard on a weekday. So I have coaxed publisher Steve Wasserman and his assistant, Emmerich Anklam, to provide an alternative, and they have. Lucky for all of us, the Hass event is the debut entry on the Heyday’s brand new Soundcloud page here. Steve moderates the discussion.

You never lose some friends.

Bob is always a fascinating speaker, and he spoke about the dangers to our environment, friends who have died, and the unusual process of putting together Summer Snow. One of his favorite topics is Czesław Miłosz, in fact, that’s how we met. I get plenty of opportunities to talk, so I generally like to be quietly inconspicuous at these events, but an hour into the talk about lost friends and the poems of Summer Snow, he asked for one last question and I couldn’t resist the chance.

My own trepidatious question around the 59 minute mark. Could he read one of his poems about Milosz? In particular, the one about the Miłosz’s tomb at Na Skałce? He hesitated. It was long, he said, counting the five pages. But then, with the encouragement of the crowd, he read the poem, “An Argument About Poetics Imagined at Squaw Valley After a Night Walk Under the Mountain.”

It was an astonishing, dare I say unforgettable, reading. Everyone was moved. One person was crying. Listen for yourself.

One hitch: the battery on the recording device died before the poem ends. So I include the final lines for you below:

One small fly in the ointment:
You described headlights sweeping a field
On a summer night, do you remember? I can quote to you
The lines. You said you could sense the heartbeat
Of the living and the dead. It was a night in July, he said,
In Pennsylvania – to me then an almost inconceivably romantic name –
And then the air was humid and smelled of wet earth after rain.
I remember this night very well. Those lines not so much.

 

Intellect, critic, provocateur Scott Timberg: “His death is a casualty in the fight for the soul of the city.”

Saturday, December 14th, 2019
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I didn’t know Los Angeles cultural journalist and author Scott Timberg, but it seemed all my friends did. The Los Angeles Times obituary called him “a ferocious listener and reader whose cultural appetites fueled his career as an author and journalist in Los Angeles and led him to question the future of the arts in the internet age.” Timberg died on Tuesday. He was 50.

“His death by suicide shocked us all while also silencing a voice of tremendous insight and eloquence about so, so many things that he loved,” wrote the writer’s brother, Craig Timberg, in a message to friends.

The Palo Alto-born journalist wrote Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life. The acclaimed book was published in 2015 by Yale University Press.

Ted Gioia recalls “earnestness and enthusiasm”

“You could talk to him about virtually any subject,” wrote friend and author Ted Goia. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who combined earnestness and enthusiasm (typically opposed traits) in such a high degree.”

An excerpt from the obituary:

Timberg’s cultural explorations continued after The Times laid him off amid budget cuts in 2008, and the Timberg family had to relinquish their home. Timberg began to question conventional wisdom about the internet boosting opportunities for writers, artists, musicians and others.

Between freelance assignments for clients including the New York Times, Timberg gradually assembled the manuscript that became Culture Crash and took it to Steve Wasserman, who edited the book for Yale University Press and now serves as publisher and executive director of Heyday.

The book, wrote reviewer Richard Brody in the New Yorker, is “a quietly radical rethinking of the very nature of art in modern life.”

Timberg’s lament for the creative class “seemed to have been written with a pen dipped into the inkwell of his own blood,” Wasserman said Friday. He called Timberg a man of “exquisite, promiscuous curiosities” whose death “is the moral equivalent of a book-burning.”

“A pen dipped into the inkwell of his own blood”

“He could write about music better than any other literary journalist, and he could write about literature better than any other music journalist,” said David Kipen, a friend, editor and founder of the nonprofit Boyle Heights lending library Libros Schmibros.

Said his friend and editor Joe Donnelly, “His death is a casualty in the fight for the soul of the city.”

After discussing his book, the L.A. Times says: “The sting of those disappointments, friends and family said, never seemed to fade.” It wasn’t clear whether it was the disappointment in  the digital technology and economic polarization, or being laid off and losing one’s home. I know what it is like to live as a free-lancer in the “gig economy.”

I look forward to reading his book. He will be missed.

Read the whole thing here. Tweets from NBC news journalist Dennis Romero, Ted Gioia, and the Los Angeles Times‘s Tom Curwen.

New Sontag bio: “a voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity and careerism”? A friend speaks out.

Saturday, October 5th, 2019
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The New York Times called Ben Moser’s Susan Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco) “a landmark biography, the first major reintroduction of an incomparable literary heavyweight to the public since her death.” Leslie Jamison, writing in The New Republic, called it “utterly riveting and consistently insightful . . . The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse—formidable, intimidating, often stubbornly impersonal in her work—and makes her life-size again . . . fascinating.” I haven’t read it yet. However, her close friend, Steve Wasserman has, and he disagrees. (He’s spoken about her before on The Book Haven, here and here.)

His mini-review below:

Ben Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag is appallingly reductive. Her actual writings and ideas interest him rather less than what he construes as her private life. He is transfixed by the halo of celebrity that seemed to hover above Sontag during her life and which, even after her death, continues to glow. As a result, his biography is strikingly coarse and prurient, mocking and condescending, even as it pretends to an unearned seriousness of purpose, accompanied by a style designed to tell readers what to think and feel. He accuses Sontag of being a coward about her sexuality, a narcissistic diva, a person whose efforts to transform herself are derided as comic.

Suppose he is right. What does this have to do with the work — her writings — which is, after all, why we ought to care, if we care at all, about Susan Sontag. If people think the work is no good, or at least that it’s wildly overrated, fine, then they should say so. But if the work has any true and lasting merit, then this voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity and careerism is, to say the least, misplaced, not to mention that it seeks to have it both ways, and exploits the very fame it so condescends to. But then, condescending to Sontag while fixating on her, even when she was alive, is something so commonplace as to be tediously familiar.

Paying any attention to Sontag, especially now, fifteen years after her demise, matters only if her work matters. Everything else amounts to gossip about a person who was famous in her lifetime, or is grist for the most trivial sort of social and cultural history. Moser seems to believe that what matters most about Sontag was her effect on her contemporaries, not her work. This view is a disservice to and a caricature of the woman and writer I knew.

(Photograph above right by Andy Ross, Berkeley, circa 1995.)

“The beating heart of good prose”: Robert Alter on rhythm and translating the Hebrew Bible

Sunday, March 24th, 2019
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Alter at Berkeley’s Heyday (Photo: Wendy Ruebman)

This week, Berkeley’s Robert Alter honored a lunchtime gathering at Heyday Books with his gentle presence and his scholarly wisdom – just in time for Purim. Alter is the translator of the surprise hit of the year: the new acclaimed 3,500-page Hebrew Bible (Norton). (We’ve written about his work here and here.) He’s also the author of Princeton’s The Art of Bible Translation.

I’ve been a big fan since I read his translation of Genesis more than two decades ago, and so I lugged my big-splurge purchase of 2019, the three-volume set, for his signature. (Gauche, I know, but I couldn’t resist – he only signed one volume before he rushed off to pick up his wife.)

The largely atheist/agnostic/”none” crowd was skeptical of the foundational masterpiece of Western civilization, but in a short hour or so, the amiable, learned Alter had them eating out of his hand. Rhythm, he said, is “the beating heart of good prose” and “not merely decorative.” He spoke about the iambic rhythm of Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville – “it wasn’t just icing on the cake for Melville” – and the intricacies of replicating the rhythm of ancient Hebrew. He decried “the dumbed-down modern versions – and they’re all dumbed-down.” He had to “scrape off the theological veneer” for “the detective work of language.”

I had a chance to chat with him for a few minutes before his talk. I mentioned that René Girard calls the Genesis story of Joseph the first representation of forgiveness, as something more than letting go of a debt or not clubbing an enemy, after all. Alter didn’t disagree, but he pointed out that the Old Testament also shows the first hero who changes over time, i.e., “character development.” To wit: the patriarch Jacob, who begins as a trickster on the make, ends by being tricked himself, and suffers cruel loss and bereavement. On his deathbed – humbled, broken, mourning – he says: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning” (in Alter’s translation, of course). Ancient heroes like Ulysses don’t do that – when he gets back home to Ithaca after twenty years  he turns right back and heads for the sea again. (Dante condemned it, though Tennyson rendered it as an act of heroism.)

In his introduction, Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman called Alter “enviably erudite and lovely.” He is, he is.

Endangered species: book coverage in the Bay Area

Friday, March 15th, 2019
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It was a surprise for many of us to hear the news on Feb. 27: The San Francisco Chronicle told John McMurtrie, its longtime book critic and editor, that he was being laid off. He announced the news on Twitter, which is how I heard the tale. There will be no replacement, so what happens next? The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the literary capitals of the U.S. The idea that one of the nation’s top papers is stripping down its book section is bad news indeed.

I remember, in the long-ago days of the 2001, Bay Area-wide protests, spearheaded by the late great Diane Middlebrook, when the Chronicle folded its book section into the rest of the paper. From The Los Angeles Times:

…when word began leaking out a few weeks ago that the city’s major daily newspaper was reconfiguring its Sunday book review section, a howl went up from segments of the Bay Area literati. Books and the people who write and read them are taken seriously in San Francisco, home at various times to such venerable and disparate persons of letters as Mark Twain and Allen Ginsberg.

Accordingly, reports that the San Francisco Chronicle was revamping, and possibly even downsizing, its well-regarded Book Review section were treated in some quarters as a potential affront to the city’s literary self-esteem.

Middlebrook (Photo: Amanda Lane)

“You owe it to the citizens of San Francisco!” not to diminish book coverage, wrote Diane Middlebrook, a professor of English at Stanford University, in a recent letter urging Chronicle management not to “demote book talk to the status of infotainment.”

“You will embarrass yourselves along with every literate person in town,” wrote Middlebrook, who is spearheading a letter-writing campaign over the issue.

What is to be done? In such times, it’s good to have Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Book Review, back in the Bay Area. He’s now publisher and executive director of Heyday Books in Berkeley. Steve and Ethan Nosowsky, editorial director of Graywolf Press, He called a meeting on March 13 at Heyday’s new headquarters to discuss how best to support continued coverage of books in the Bay Area in the aftermath of the news.

Good to have you back, Steve!

A photo commemorating the event, clockwise, from lower left: Frances Dinkelspiel, author, journalist, and founder of Berkeleyside,com; Andy Ross, literary agent and former owner of Cody’s Books, Cherilyn Parsons, founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival; Calvin Crosby, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association; Leslie Jobson, Field Sales czarina of the Ingram Content Group/Publishers Group West; Praveen Madan, owner of Kepler’s Bookstore and chairman of the Board of Directors of Berrett-Koehler Publishers; T.J. Stiles, author and historian and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Steve Wasserman, publisher and executive director of Heyday and former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review; Ethan Nosowsky, Editorial Director of Graywolf Press; Paul Yamazaki, Chief Book Buyer for City Lights Bookstore. On the phone but not depicted: Oscar Villalon, editor of Zyzzyva literary quarterly and former books editor of the San Francisco Chronicle; March 11, 2019, Berkeley) (Photograph by Emmerich Anklam, Publisher’s Assistant and Editor at Heyday.)

A book is born! A celebratory lunch for “‘The Spirit of the Place’: Czesław Miłosz in California” with publisher, friend Steve Wasserman

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018
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The Bandol Rosé was excellent.

A toast, a book, and bon appétit with Steve Wasserman at Chez Panisse. He promised me a celebratory repast for my National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar grant, and he delivered. The book that I will undertake during 2018-19 will be “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California.

What did it mean for one of the greatest Polish poets of the 20th century for to spend most of his career in California? In a 1975 poem “Magic Mountain” the lonely exile expressed his isolation and alienation this way:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
.
But he also grew to love it, even as he criticized it – and he had a career here that would have been impossible in Communist Poland.

At Chez Panisse, we demonstrated some contrary California spirit with a French wine – a 2015 Bandol Rosé, Domaine Tempier. Steve told me it is one of the favorites of Chez Panisse founder and chef, the legendary Alice Waters, an old friend.

He worked quickly.

He recalled stories about his good friends Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, and the experience of coming back to California after decades away, his most recent port-of-call at Yale University Press, where he was editor at large. I also recalled the Polish poet’s own adventures at Chez Panisse, as related by Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. 

And I retold something that poet Robert Hass, a California native, once said after I mentioned I had grown up in Michigan. He paused a moment, and said, “Then your eye must be always searching for a shade of green it never finds here.” And so it does.

We talked about California – land of endless invention, miraculous weather, and addictive sunshine. Everywhere else is something of a disappointment. He recalled traveling through the Catskills as a child, and the adults pointing out the “mountains.” “Where?” he asked eagerly. “There!” they said. “I don’t see them!” “Over there.” Those were hills, he told me scornfully, “eroded stubs!” He pulled out a pen and swiftly drew a picture on the paper tablecloth. This, this is a mountain: snow at the top, timberline, hills at the bottom. The Sierras.

What did we eat? Normally I don’t say, but … Chez Panisse. I ordered the fettuccine with chanterelles, gremolata, and Parmesan; Steve had the summer vegetable tagine with shell beans, couscous, yogurt, and chermoula. I started with the baked andante dairy goat cheese with garden lettuces, he had the fennel and rocket salad with crème fraîche, mint, figs, and toasted almonds. We shared a bittersweet chocolate pavé with caramel ice cream and candied hazelnuts. No, we didn’t take any photos of our food. And yes, we had to ask the waiter what some of these words meant.

And I left with a celebratory gift from Steve: Heyday’s best-selling The California Field Atlas by Obi Kauffman, and a catalog of books-to-come. Spirit of the Place won’t be in it for a while yet.

Congratulations to me! I’m a 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar”!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018
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The news is out! I’m a brand-new 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar.” It is obviously a great honor, and I am thrilled beyond words. The letter of announcement is here and list of recipients is here. The Washington Post story is here. As for the project I will be undertaking as an NEH Public Scholar:

“I did not choose California. It was given to me,” wrote Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. His attempt to come to grips with California was a lifelong psychological journey, and one that changed America as well as the poet himself. This story will be told in “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California, a book that was born in a British Academy talk I gave in London, 2012. It is the first book-length study to consider the Lithuanian-born Polish poet as an American.

The Berkeley poet.

It all started at a Christmas party, a year-and-a-half ago, when I was still knee-deep in bringing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard to press (Wall Street Journal review is here).  Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Time Book Review when it was the best in the nation, and more recently editor-at-large for Yale University Press, was returning to his rodina, Berkeley. He had just taken the helm at Heyday Books – in his words, “a unique cultural institution that promotes awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures and boundary-breaking ideas. Through well-crafted books, public events, and innovative outreach programs, Heyday seeks to build a vibrant community of readers, writers, and thinkers.”

We had spoken on the phone, we had emailed each other, but we had never actually met face to face until that chilly night on December 17, 2016.

The setting was Heyday’s cozy offices on University Avenue, only a mile from Chez Panisse, the legendary restaurant that is Steve’s second home. Heyday was a rabbit warren of booklined walls and dark wood paneling. Old Berkeley at its best. (It’s since had to move house, alas.)

That night, the corridors were crowded with chattering people and the tables laden with a lavish spread of potluck offerings. The band performing by the entryway made conversation improbable. Nevertheless, Steve and I found a quiet room to chat, and he told me about his new publishing initiative at Heyday called “California Lives.”

In his words again: “The series will consist of book-length biographical essays on the men and women who, taken singly and together, have built a state which is a source of relentless reinvention, a magnet for peoples the world over who have sought an escape from history and a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility.” He wondered if I had any ideas.

“Yeah, what about Czesław Miłosz?” I suggested. But … he’s Polish, he answered. “Well, we’re all from somewhere else, aren’t we?” I answered – it’s especially true in California. And, after all, the Nobel poet was a U.S. citizen – UC Berkeley’s first and only Nobelist in the humanities. Steve’s brow furrowed. But didn’t he dislike the U.S.?  And California, for that matter? Consider his arguments about Robinson Jeffers. “What could be more American than opposition?” I answered. “We’re all protesting something.” He loved Walt Whitman, quarreled with the spirit of Jeffers, and he engaged American culture – while always remaining ambivalent about it. I had the expertise to advance the argument: I’ve written a welter of articles about Miłosz, and have two volumes about him to my credit, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAnd I’m a longstanding Californian – though across the Bay from Miłosz’s (and Steve’s) Berkeley.

Steve was won over. Here’s what he wrote about the poet in a publisher’s statement for the NEH: “He is emblematic of a host of mid-century émigrés who sought refuge from the calamities of the twentieth century in California. It is a state that is both a place and a state of mind whose literature reflects a range of affection and unease. Miłosz’s contribution to that literature is a red thread that runs through some of his most important work, but is curiously neglected in most of the critical commentary. Heyday aims to correct that omission.”

Steve has another reason to be drawn to the subject: “I confess a personal stake in his story. I grew up in Berkeley and went to high school with his two sons. I spent time in his home on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Later, when I was deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion section I was among the first to interview him when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.”

Steve has also been a longstanding champion of the proposed author of the book, too. Let me conclude with some praise for my humble self:

Thank you, Steve.

“Cynthia Haven’s writing on East European and Central European writers is superb, as I know from my years publishing her reviews in the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, as a longtime resident of California, she brings to bear a deep understanding of the state and its paradoxes. She is alive to irony and knows the virtues of a short declarative sentence. She is remarkably clear without neglecting nuance. She embraces the Eros of the difficult and translates it into terms that can be grasped by ordinary readers. Her perspicacity, diligence, and acute intelligence are ideal for this necessary book on Miłosz. She will help Californians in particular, and Americans more generally, enter Miłosz’s mostly unfamiliar but remarkably influential and important world. Her gifts as a researcher and writer—indeed, as a cultural journalist—are very nearly unrivaled in this arena.”

Steve was almost as pleased as I was by the NEH honor. And of course he suggested we celebrate at Chez Panisse soon, soon…