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Posts Tagged ‘George Plimpton’

The Sharpened Pencil: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

October 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a ­thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”

As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”

There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement. 

Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.


This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?



Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »

That Was Not a Very Nice Thing to Do, and Other News

October 3, 2016 | by

From the cover of My Brilliant Friend.

  • Now, let’s divert our attention to a much less controversial story from the NYRB: Nathaniel Rich on George Plimpton. “The quintessential Plimptonian anecdote comes near the end of Paper Lion when, a year after leaving the team, he wistfully follows his old squad from afar. We find him in Bellagio, on Lake Como, chasing down a box score in a Paris Herald he has found at a waterside café. ‘When I read that the Lions had lost a game,’ he writes, ‘I rose in anguish out of my chair, absolutely stiff with grief, my knee catching the edge of the table as I came up, and toppling it over in a fine cascade of Perrier bottles’ … Philip Roth, in the extended appreciation of Plimpton that appears in Exit Ghost, identified the issue of social class as ‘the deepest inspiration for his writing so singularly about sports’ … But the technique only works because Plimpton hides this knowing quality from his readers. There is never a wink or nod in the direction of the premise’s artifice. A consummate straight man, he emphasizes how seriously he is taking matters.” 

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Monday: Terry McDonell and Graydon Carter at 92Y

September 14, 2016 | by

Terry McDonell and Graydon Carter.

Join Terry McDonell, president of The Paris Review’s board of directors, next Monday, September 19, at 92Y, as he discusses his new memoir, The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers, with Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter. Tickets are available now.

Terry boasts a daunting résumé: he’s worked at Rolling Stone, Newsweek, EsquireSmart, Outside, and Sports Illustrated. The Accidental Life chronicles his career at some of America’s most influential magazines. “Every time I run into Terry McDonell,” Jeffrey Eugenides writes, “I think how great it would be to have dinner with him. Hear about the writers he’s known and edited over the years, what the magazine business was like back then, how it’s changed and where it’s going, inside info about Edward Abbey, Jim Harrison, Annie Proulx, old New York, and the Swimsuit issue. That dinner is this book.”

Read an excerpt from The Accidental Life about our founding editor, George Plimpton.

There’s the Great Man

August 2, 2016 | by

Befriending George Plimpton.


George Plimpton in his office.

George’s questions were like trampolines, a technology he admired. They bounced you higher—to the next question. This was particularly true when he was talking about writers and writing.

“Did you know that the great Camus played goal for the Oran Football Club?” he asked me when we were walking past an Algerian restaurant near his apartment on Seventy-Second Street. I was unaware but said that I did think Gabriel García Márquez had written a soccer column for a while in Bogota.

Alas,” George sighed, “Le colonisateur de bonne volonte was never moved to write about it. Imagine, the existential goalkeeper.”

Alas,” I said, and he gave me a look. Read More »

Bastille Day Sale

July 14, 2016 | by


George Plimpton loved Bastille Day. He also loved the Fourth of July and Saint Patrick’s Day—any event, really, that occasioned a parade and the shooting off of fireworks. “Ecstasy after ecstasy” and “transfixed with joy” is how his friends have described his appreciation for the colorful explosions. We’d like to think that Bastille Day was special for him: Paris was, of course, where the magazine was born. The storming of the Bastille is a decidedly different venture from initiating a literary magazine, but our founders had revolution in mind.

To celebrate the Republic and the Review, we’re offering our most Parisian issues (judging by their covers, anyway) at a discount. Through midnight tomorrow (July 15), use the code BASTILLEDAY to get 40% off all the issues in this collection. Details below. Read More »

Via Activa

July 12, 2016 | by

When physical fitness meets the literary life.

From a poster for the Works Progress Administration’s Recreation Project, ca. 1936.

Young people are a mess. They eat the crappiest fast food, make a point of drinking only to excess, barely sleep, indulge in all sorts of chemicals—and yet, given even a modicum of activity, their bodies bounce back with all the manic exuberance of a Super Ball in a many-angled room. Growing up, I made a thorough test of this proposition. Through high school and college, I neither participated in team sports (unless you count the bong-hit team) nor pursued any type of systematic exercise, and in fact I don’t recall anyone ever suggesting that doing so might be beneficial. What kept me from the obesity that has become epidemic among children today was a fast metabolism and sporadic bursts of movement: I was an avid skier, over the fifteen-odd days a year that skiing was possible for a kid growing up in Maryland; and on occasion I’d play tennis, go hiking, or ride my bicycle. Read More »