A Week in Culture: Daniel Okrent, Writer and Editor, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Okrent’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


Rubenfeld hasn’t sent anything soaring over the wrong river recently, but he does have Al Jolson singing to a swing band accompaniment about ten years before swing came into vogue. The book is extremely fast-paced and well-plotted, but if you hold it up next to one particular book set in a similar time, and similarly dependent on the imagined lives of real historical figures, it’s paler than a bedsheet. The book I have in mind, of course, is E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and I say of course because if you were alive and literate in 1975, you’ve read it. I don’t think there’s a novel that has evoked such universal enthusiasm in the years since. Doctorow already had a minor reputation, but this single book was like a comet screaming across the cosmos, the subject of cover stories, lengthy reviews, talk-show discussions, et cetera, for weeks and weeks. I want to read it again.

Tonight, the Prazak Quartet at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Four Czechs, former classmates at the Prague conservatory, playing Beethoven, Janacek, and Schubert with an earthy quality not so common among American chamber groups. Weill might be the most beautiful music room in New York, its proportions ideal, its acoustics excellent (especially in the tiny balcony), each of its glowing chandeliers an especially opulent grace note. I just wish it weren’t named after the donor who made it possible. Sandy Weill has been extraordinarily generous with New York institutions and should get credit for that, but one suspects he’s more interested in credit than in music. The only time I’ve ever seen him at Carnegie—whose board he chaired for years—was at a black-tie fund-raising gala. In his truly egregious autobiography, with its peacocking title and subtitle (The Real Deal: My Life in Business and Philanthropy), he mentions exactly two pieces of music over the course of 544 pages: “Happy Birthday,” and the title song from Oklahoma!

Excuse the digression. Lovely room, stirring music, great evening. Could have done without the ridiculous “15 bite hot dog” at the Brooklyn Diner before the concert, but that was my own fault.


Listening to Calm Radio while I fail to write. Working session in the afternoon with Stuart Ross and Peter Gethers on our forthcoming show, Old Jews Telling Jokes. Dinner with friends. Much talk about Frank Rich.


Threw Rubenfeld’s book across the room—figuratively speaking, embedded as it was in the pages of my iPad. (It’s a good argument for digital reading; thirty-five years ago, I threw Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar across the room and dented the wall. Just typing the book’s name gives me chills. Theroux goes on an adventure by train through Asia and sneers at virtually every Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, et cetera he encounters.) Rubenfeld’s hints and signals are so obvious it makes my head hurt. But I suspect I’ll pick it up again, because even the evident head fakes and foreshadowings, not to mention the misplaced bridges, don’t obscure the appeal of its pace and its plotting. Dinner at home, then watched … Toy Story 3, courtesy of a Roku download. Vijay Seshadri (see day 1) said he thought it was the best movie of the year, and neither Becky nor I had ever seen any of the films in the series. Pretty damn good, but it’s not The Social Network. (Yes, I know The King’s Speech won the Oscar, but The Social Network took home the Okrent.)


Began the day with the advance sections of the Sunday paper. Scoreboard for the TBR: lists over reviews by TKO. Research for the show: reading Leo Rosten for context, scouring YouTube for more jokes, clicking through a CD-ROM (!) of Bran Ferren’s 1992 film Funny. And in late afternoon, off to the penultimate performance of Colin Quinn’s Long Story Short. I’ll confess that I had never heard of Colin Quinn before this show opened (which reminds me of Patty Marx’s immortal line on the death of Kurt Cobain: “Had he not died, I would never have known that he had ever lived”). I’ll also confess that I would never have seen the show had Stuart Ross not encouraged me to go. I’m glad for it: I found Quinn refreshingly … well, intelligent and literate. His riffs on Sophocles, the Holy Roman Empire, Shakespeare, and democracy may not have been earth shattering, but as subject matter it was all a lot more interesting than booty calls, weed, and other contemporary stand-up standbys.

Tomorrow, to BAM for Robert Lepage’s version of Stravinsky’s Nightingale, but tomorrow is next week and that belongs to someone else.

Daniel Okrent is the author, most recently, of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.