“I still think that an editor at a major university press can have a more stimulating intellectual life than most faculty members have the luxury to develop.“
PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE, COOPER UNION
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1978–1986
- ASSISTANT FOR THE DIRECTOR OF SOCIAL AND HEALTH AGENCIES, 1978–1979
- REFERENCE EDITOR, 1980
- EXECUTIVE EDITOR FOR HUMANITIES, 1981–1983
- EDITOR IN CHIEF, 1983–1986
> In 1978 I started at the Press, working on the Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York City, a complex and practically pre-computer project (enormous printouts in alternating green and white lines) that synthesized every social work service in the five boroughs: assistance with burial costs for Haitian New Yorkers; places where Orthodox women could get their wigs groomed; hotlines for substance-abuse, hygiene, and mental-health issues; and the social-services program for each New York hospital. I had been an undergrad at Columbia, but the Press was unknown to me before I joined, working on a couple of floors of what was then a Columbia residence hall.
My boss on the project was William James Smith, a sweet and eccentric man who carried in his shirt pocket a tiny slip of paper on which he recorded every expense he had had since dawn. On particularly wearying days, he’d send one of us on his team out for what he called a “treaty,” which was usually a box of Entenmann’s doughnuts. Then he’d meticulously record to the penny the cost and reposition the slip of paper.
Columbia was my first publishing job and the one where I honed a few skills and made plenty of mistakes. It was also the place where I learned one of the truths of work: if you interact with the public you’re a performer, and that gives you the right to make up a persona that fits what you have to do. When I started as an acquisitions editor, I picked up the phone and spoke to people— including the starriest of scholars—at Columbia, Berkeley, Yale, UCLA, Harvard—people I’d never have encountered in a regular up-the-ladder academic job. I still think that an editor at a major university press can have a more stimulating intellectual life than most faculty members have the luxury to develop.
In Mr. Smith’s office there was a reproduction French poster featuring a racing car or cigarettes or maybe a racing car advertising cigarettes. The text read “Hors concours.” I didn’t know the phrase, which he explained meant something like “exceptional—not in competition because it’s clearly in a class of its own.”
Books are something like that. Prizes are nice enough, but there’s a way in which awards are stupid things, too. Every book worth publishing really is hors concours. Non?
Congratulations and warm birthday wishes to the Press. You make 125 look good.