A Week in Culture: Daniel Okrent, Writer and Editor


The Culture Diaries


In just three weeks, I’ve discovered the best way to ruin Sunday morning coffee is to read the New York Times Book Review—not because I don’t like the reviews, or the reviewers, or the choice of books (although I could, on any given Sunday, kvetch about each of those). My problem is the continuing metastasis of the best-seller lists—hardcover, mass paperback, trade paperback, kids books, advice, et cetera, now joined by e-books as a separate category. Where once the lists took up a single page of the Book Review, they now spill over page after page, every inch they consume necessarily taking away space that could be devoted to … reviews. Maybe the proliferation of lists is an act of spite directed at publishers who have cut their advertising budgets so radically that the accompanying editorial space is already disappearing.

My wife and I went downtown to the Mesa Grill, where I hadn’t been for fifteen years, to meet friends for lunch before a matinee performance of Three Sisters at the Classic Stage Company. Mesa is about as authentically Mexican as this production was authentically Chekhovian—which is to say, not nearly enough. Some excellent actors (especially Juliet Rylance, as Irina) nonetheless managed to triumph over a peculiar, modernizing translation that placed contemporary idioms into the mouths of turn-of-the-last-century characters. If you’re going to use modern speech rhythms and colloquialisms—which is certainly a plausible, if peculiar, option—then why put all the characters in nineteenth-century clothing, in a nineteenth-century house? Still, it was well-acted Chekhov, and that’s good enough for me.

Dinner afterward in Brooklyn, at the home of poet Vijay Seshadri and his wife, Suzanne. Vijay is a spectacular talker, able to bounce from the most recondite literary subjects to Eastern theology to pot-roast recipes without pausing for a comma. The pot roast was damn good, too. Among the other guests was Mark Strand, who is much too tall and handsome for his own good. But at least he’s old.


Picked up Michael Steinberg’s For the Love of Music, which came in the mail from my Minneapolis pen pal, Katie McCurry. A couple of years ago, Katie sent me an incredibly nice fan e-mail about a book I’d published six years earlier, and we’ve been writing to each other ever since. She’s a big music fan, and Steinberg—a past master of program notes for orchestras across the country—was one of her heroes. I see why: The opening piece, about how he fell in love with music as a child, is especially strong. The fact that it was Disney’s Fantasia that pulled him in makes me feel less dorky for having myself been seduced by the William Tell Overture. The association I made between classical music and the Lone Ranger’s gallop across the twelve-inch screen of our black-and-white Zenith was so firmly embedded in my eight-year-old skull that when my mother told me she was going to a concert featuring the Robert Shaw Chorale, I heard corral—and thought the concert would consist of an orchestra accompanying horse tricks.

This week’s subway reading is The Death Instinct, by Jed Rubenfeld. Rubenfeld is better known as a Yale law professor than as a novelist, and of late even better known as the husband of Tiger Mom Amy Chua. I picked the book up because of the incredible review in the daily New York Times (“Tremendous follow-up to his 2006 novel, Interpretation of Murder … This novel is great”). I may put it down if I encounter another egregious clam like this one, on page twelve: “To their right rose up incomprehensibly tall skyscrapers. To their left, the Brooklyn Bridge soared over the Hudson.” Astonishing.


Typing typing typing. I’m struggling with a piece I’m writing for an anthology about the Yankees (struggling, probably, because I hate the Yankees), and I’m in ecstasy notating a script for an off-Broadway show I’m coproducing. (If my partners allow it, I’ll even mention what it is in a future culture diary installment.) Ecstasy is enhanced by the feed from my favorite new Web site, I mostly listen to the “Just Jazz” channel, which would more appropriately be called the American Songbook channel: the last three cuts were Sinatra, Rosie Clooney, and Ray Charles. Excellent accompaniment when you’re writing something that isn’t coming at all, or when something is coming with glorious ease.

Daniel Okrent is the author of, most recently, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.