Few newspaper reporters get wealthy by writing the news but the job offers less tangible, non-negotiable benefits. Chief among them is the opportunity to meet people you admire. My press pass gained me entrée to Count Basie, William Gass, Ralph Ellison, Elvin Jones, Dave McKenna, William Gaddis and B.B. King, among others. I met and interviewed more famous people (I sat across the table from Dan Quayle at a pancakes-and-prayer breakfast in Richmond, Ind.) but none pleased me as much as these writers and musicians. By that standard, Israel Shenker, a longtime reporter for Time magazine and the New York Times, had the most enviable job in the world.
For some reason I had never seen Words and Their Masters, his overstuffed 1974 collection of interviews, profiles, and odds and ends of a career in journalism. The volume serves as Shenker’s commonplace book too (chapters are interlarded with quotations from such luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Dean Acheson), and is illustrated with Jill Krementz’s photographs of the subjects. Here’s a sampling of the people Shenker meets and writes about: Nabokov, Borges, Beckett, Bellow, Naipaul, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever, Groucho Marx and S.J. Perelman. Duds make appearances too: Lillian Hellman, Kurt Vonnegut (Krementz’s husband), Isaac Asimov, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Gore Vidal. In his preface, Shenker says the pieces represent his “preoccupation with other people’s words.” Here’s a sample, starting with Nabokov:
Shenker: “What are the literary virtues you seek to attain – and how?”
Nabokov: “Mustering the best words, with every available lexical, associative, and rhythmic assistance, to express as closely as possible what one wants to express.”
Shenker quoting Borges:
“Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.”
“The Kafkaen hero has a coherence of purpose. He’s lost but he’s not spiritually precarious, he’s not falling to bits. My people seem to be falling to bits. Another difference. You notice how Kafka’s form is classic, it goes on like a steamroller – almost serene. It seems to be threatened the whole time – but the consternation is in the form. In my work there is consternation behind the form, not in the form.”
“I read a piece about Ruskin or maybe it was Racine who had ten kids, and every time he passed them he took a swing at them. Racine couldn’t have been that bad. They named a town after him.”
Company like this beats politicians, captains of industry and even Dan Quayle.