‘My Mistake’: memoir balances personal & professional life

menakerDaniel Menaker’s memoir “My Mistake” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a slim volume of only 231 pages, but the author makes every page count.

Menaker worked at The New Yorker magazine for more than 20 years before he went into publishing as an editor at Random House and HarperCollins.

The book delivers many juicy anecdotes about work associates such as William Shawn, Pauline Kael, Roger Angell, Tina Brown, and many other literary lights of Manhattan, but Menaker draws us in just as closely with the more personal material on his family.

Menaker writes movingly of the early loss of his brother — due to complications from an injury Menaker blames himself for — and then of his own medical crises of recent years.

The manner in which the author shares deeply personal matters without a trace of self-pity is very impressive and might be attributed to the humor he manages to find in so many of the terrible things that happen to all of us while we are (briefly) visiting this planet.

In the strange way that good things often emerge from the worst times, Menaker tells us in his great teaser of an introduction that we might not be holding “My Mistake” in our hands without his multiple cancers (and remissions):

Menaker1“Cancer can, at least for a while, have some benefits. It allows you to dodge onerous commitments. It strengthens friendships. It prevents you from taking good things for granted. It increases the urgency of parts of your life and shows up the trivialities. It requires you to find your courage.”

With so many of us being lifelong readers of The New Yorker, Menaker’s account of his time there — from an entry level job as a fact checker to his final position as a very important editor — is full of fantastic anecdotes about the people behind so many notable bylines over so many years.

“My Mistake” also shows us how tradition-bound and slow to change the magazine was during the very long William Shawn era, when even the addition of a tiny and vague table of contents was controversial (after years of readers not having any idea of what was in each issue until they paged their way through it):

“A colleague finally says, ‘This is just awful! How could we do such a thing,’ Being green, I say, ‘Well, don’t you think it’s a good idea for readers to know what’s in the magazine?’ She says, ‘It’s none of the readers’ business what’s in the magazine.’”

The New Yorker was so rich in its peak years, Menaker points out, that the whimsical Shawn was allowed such editorial excess as spending an estimated $200,000 annually on kill fees for stories he approved but finally decided not to run.

There was such a sense of distance from the hurly burly of real life outside The New Yorker offices that a union movement that would bring such benefits as dental insurance was greeted by staffer Jonathan Schell with the remark, “Dostoyevsky didn’t have a dental plan.”

The whims and excesses of Shawn — and his eccentric writers — produced a great magazine which was completely free of pressure from its posh advertisers (The New Yorker had high standards for its advertisers as well as for those who produced its editorial content).

So, there is a bemused melancholy in the sections of “My Mistake” that deal with Shawn’s ouster and with the changes made by his first two successors — Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown.

Menaker was at the magazine during a golden age, but he presents those years in an unsentimental manner and shows us that they were only a few pieces of the puzzle of his remarkable life.

(Daniel Menaker will be talking about “My Mistake” tonight at 7 p.m. at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. For more information, visit www.rjjulia.com)