Birnbaum v. Birnbaum
By ROBERT BIRNBAUM
By of way of
introduction, here's a short bio from one of the websites to which I
contribute: "Robert Birnbaum, a bookish
journalist, was born in Germany, grew up in Chicago, lived for too
many years in Boston. He is editor-at-large at Identitytheory.com and lives in New Hampshire with a blonde
Labrador, Rosie." I'm happy to point out
that the "bookish journalist" characterization came by way of an
all-too-brief conversation with Cynthia Ozick.
One of the pleasures of chatting with the divine Ozick is that we ended up
schmoozing away like two cousins at a bar mitzvah. In
the course of hundreds of conversations I've had with writers such as Louis
Begley, Amy Bloom Neil Pollack, Michael Lesy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Art Spiegelman,
Peter Singer, Christopher Hitchens, and Thomas Beller, there are occasionally
moments that reflect shared roots and upbringings. For instance, in a chat with Joe Epstein, we
discovered that we both grew up on the
North side of Chicago, and soon lapsed into an arpeggio of Jewish banter:
RB: I was talking with my mother,
telling her I was going to talk with you, and I told her the title of the book
[Small Fabulous Jews]. Her response was, "Where do you get
JE: Your mother lives in
Lincolnwood, so she knows this terrain.
RB: I grew up in West Rogers Park,
so I also know it.
JE: What was your address?
RB: 7035 N. Washtenaw.
JE: Oh wow! 6649 Campbell. We have
both come a long way. You went to Rogers School. I went to Boone. God, we are
from the old country.
RB: This used to be called Jewish geography.
Also, I was not bashful about asking cartoonist and MacArthur Fellow Ben Katchor,
“Does it seem to you there are a disproportionate number of Jews in
cartooning?” Or exploring the dark and painful subject of anti-Semitism with
literary mishpocha like Eva Hoffman and
Now JBooks.com has asked me to, well, interview myself. The conversation took
place on the banks of the Squamscott River in Exeter, New Hampshire. To make
things easier the interlocutor will be Robert and the respondent, Isadore...
Robert: How did you get into this
line of work?
Isadore: Well, I like to talk and I
like to read and I am frequently too lazy to sit around and write stuff.
Robert: You’re not suggesting that
reading is not work, are you?
Isadore: [laughs] Try to convince my
second ex-wife that it’s work. But if you are raised to think that work is
onerous and draining, no, reading is not work. And compared to the life of,
say, a Central American campesino… Actually,
being a journalist is great fun, one of the great excuses to investigate one’s
own predilections and obsessions and pretty much contact any one in the known
world with impunity. On the other hand, I am somewhat discouraged by a sad
consequence of celebrity culture is that sometimes friends and readers say to
me, “Wow, you talked to So-and-So,” as though So-and-So were a different life
Robert: What makes a good interview?
Or, as you like to say, a good
Isadore: Well, there’s the
obvious—as Elmore Leonard put it, “Leave out the parts that readers will skip.”
I'm not sure about this, since I rarely re-read after I transcribe and edit,
but I think it must be the same as with written stuff—if we are talking about
things we care about, I think that readers are drawn to that. I am not sure its
about factual information—the kinds of things you get in those brainy
interviews in The Atlantic. One thing I lost interest in
was having the definitive or even the smart interview. My dialogues are just
moments in a given space and time. By my definition, the definitive interview
with someone is the very last one. I started out doing interviews—writing out
questions and trying to adhere to something fairly scripted. In the course of
well over a thousand of these things, my sense of them is that they evolved
from Q&A interviews, which are the norm to conversations and in some cases
[Socratic] dialogues. Frank Conroy’s
last book was a collection of essays and articles called Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now. One
of the pieces included was a profile of pianist Keith Jarrett. Jarrett, who is
a great improviser, talks about how, before beginning a concert, he sits at the
keyboard and clears his mind of all musical ideas. I have tried to approach my
conversations in the same spirit. Though frequently, as I drive to my
appointment, I seem to drift to a few questions—maybe like picking out the
dominant chord of the composition that follows.
Robert: What’s your favorite/most
Isadore: My most memorable was one I
was on the radio doing with [composer/musician] Anthony Braxton. Lightening
stuck the antennae and knocked us off the air. As to favorite, I have so many
that the word loses its meaning. There are many people I have spoken with a few
times, some four and five times over 15 years—Richard Russo, Richard Ford,
Fredrick Busch, Amy Bloom, Martin Amis, Chip Kidd—and those reunions have
become quite pleasing. Most recently, because for a long time I had wanted to
talk with Cynthia Ozick, whom I admire immensely—I chatted with her in the
lobby of the Four Seasons, where she was profoundly impressed that someone
could charge $12 for a soft-boiled egg—and it was a splendid hour or so. I was
greatly complimented that she described talking with me as like talking to a
Robert: What’s your favorite color?
Isadore: Unlike fashionistas who are
always defining the “new black,” I like black and red (revolutionary colors).
See, I know what you are doing here. I have done it myself. I’ve asked Cynthia
Ozick and Donna Tartt that question—never thinking I would get more than a joking
dismissive reply. The point here is that any question can be a platform for an
interesting conversational cul de sac.
Not to mention who is to say what will reveal what is interesting about another
person? To quote the great Thomas Waller, “One never knows, do one?”
Robert: Who are good interviewers?
Isadore: Terry Gross, Chris Lydon,
David Barsamian, Michael Silverblatt, Keith Obermann. And let me say that Diane
Sawyer is terrible and sometimes thoughtlessly vicious, but what can you expect
from someone who’s network spends huge resources trumpeting, “The Interview:
Robert: Any tricks?
Isadore: The only thing that is
consistent about my talks is that I have at least read and familiarized myself
with the most recent work that someone has done and when I am with that person
I am quite enamored of them. I guess that kind of makes me like a hooker.
Except that I am sincere.
Robert: Who would you still like to
Isadore: Phillip Roth,
Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Bob Dylan,
Sally Potter, Wislawa Szymborska, Hal Wilner, Agnieszka Holland , James
Nachtway (again), Norman Mailer, Imre Kertész.
Robert: What would you be doing if
you weren’t doing what you do?
Isadore: I am always curious about
that about other people—not because it reveals much about a person but because
career choices can sometimes be tied to a person or an image or event—something
fleeting or serendipitous. Our choices can make really good stories.
Robert: What do you call what you
do? How do you refer to yourself?
Isadore: In general, I consider
myself a journalist. I have concentrated on the literary world because that
dovetails with my devotion to reading but also because I have been engaged in a
long post-graduate self-education/tutorial. In describing myself with great
specificity and, of course, thus obscuring myself—I am a Jewish, Northside
Robert: Any mentors? Heroes?
Isadore: I think my generation didn’t
have mentors in the common sense of the word. But as for heroes, Howard Zinn,
James Nachtway, Mark Danner, Curtis Mayfield, John Lee Anderson and David
Rieff, Studs Terkel, Saira Shah, Christina Rathbone.
Robert: What do you think is
Isadore: Besides my son Cuba? I’m
partial to a quote from the Kabbalah: “To
contemplate truth without sorrow is the greatest gift.” And that I bookend
along with T.H. White’s prescription from The
Once and Future King: “The best
thing for being sad...is to learn something. That is the only thing that never
fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake
listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may
see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor
trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to
learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which
the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or
distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
Robert: Anything else?
Isadore: Well, of course, but it’s
the nature of a conversation that has to end somewhere so this one ends here,
though in a way this is not ended as much as it is an offshoot of all the
conversations that I have had and continue to have.