Heroes of the written word: David Remnick

There are a few writers whose work I have learned to seek out and read, regardless of the subject. Christopher Hitchens, our national pugilist and probably our Orwell, is one. The other is David Remnick, who was a fine writer before he became the outstanding editor of the New Yorker.
Remnick spent four years in Moscow writing Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, a classic story of how a little glasnost went a very long ways to exposing the economically and morally bankrupt Soviet state. The book won the Pulitzer Prize — and one can easily suppose that it won comfortably.

“The Soviet Union was an old tyrant slouched in the corner with cataracts and gallstones, his muscles gone slack. He wore plastic shoes and a shiny suit that stank of sweat. He hogged all the food and fouled his pants. Mornings, his tongue was coated with the ash-taste of age. … The state was senile but still dangerous enough.”

Or this, on the Chernobyl tragedy of April 1986.

Chernobyl symbolized “every curse of the Soviet system, the decay and arrogance, the willful ignorance and self-deception. Chernobyl was not like the Communist system. They were one in the same. … The system ate into our bones the same way the radiation did, and the powers that be–or the powers that were–did everything they could to cover it all up, to wish it all away.

Remnick gets the facts right, the story right, and the words right. He writes to stir the soul. The second Remnick book that I loved was King of the World, a biography of Muhammed Ali. Again, the subject doesn’t matter. Remnick loves sports writing, but is not really a fan of boxing, a sport he terms “finally indefensible”. But he adores his subject as a man of his times, a symbol of the 1960s, someone who triumphs as an athlete, a man, and a public figure.

It is hard today to recall the depth of emotion provoked in America by a young, beautiful, loud-mouthed Cassius Clay . American had never seen an athlete who was black, proud, and vocal (“I am the greatest! I shook up the world! I am the greatest thing that ever lived!”). They sure had not seen one who resisited the draft and criticized American foreign policy (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”). And we still haven’t seen one who could convert to the Nation of Islam (which ruined both his marriage and his friendship with Malcom X) and remain a national hero. The book works in part because Remnick paints compelling portraits not only of Ali, but of the sensitive and politically active Floyd Patterson, of the cautious Sugar Ray Robinson, and the evil, almost demented, Sonny Liston. One of the best sports biographies ever written.

Remnick may be my only hero younger than me. He is the fifth editor of the venerated New Yorker magazine and heir to one of the most coveted literary positions in America. He has written smart essays and profiles while editing the magazine, with his dispatches from Israel being my favorites. He has made the New Yorker into an even greater literary franchise with events like The New Yorker Festival, the publication of countless anthologies, and a credible podcast. Remnick published The Complete New Yorker, a set of DVDs that contain the entire history of the magazine (and should become a subscription website). A real treasure. Finally, he published The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, which you gotta love.

How is the magazine doing under Remnick? Well, since he became editor, New Yorker readership has passed one million. The magazine has won sixteen National Magazine Awards. In 2004, the magazine won three Ellies for Public Interest, Feature Writing, and Essays. In addition Remnick was named Advertising Age’s Editor of the Year in 2000. Not a bad start, considering that he has another 20 years or so to get it right.