An Explosion of Recognition

A WaveMaker Conversation


Daniel Menaker

Dear Fellow Parents:

I am always searching for books that will spark a life-long passion for reading in my children.

Little Daniel Menaker’s story could be a perspective changer.

Menaker is not little any more.

He is 72 and has a long track record as a literary leader.

He ran the Fiction department in one of the great houses of fiction – The New Yorker – from 1976 until 1994, when he was “shed” by Tina Brown to her husband, who was running Random House.

At Random House, the first book Menaker published was a political novel that many company insiders said would never sell because the author insisted on being Anonymous.  Primary Colors.  Now, it's the book's doubters who are anonymous. 

And as you’ll hear if you sample our conversation from this summer’s Nantucket Book Festival here or by clicking the Play icon below. Menaker is a great raconteur.

What’s relevant for us parents is this.

At the age of 10, Daniel Menaker was browsing through his uncle’s bookshelf and came across Microbe Hunters, written in 1926 by an author named Paul De Kruif.  Microbe Hunters changed Daniel Menaker’s life.

“The reason it changed my life,” Menaker tells me, is that “it was the first real grownup book I read.  And it made me feel grown up.  And that was fun.  I understood it.  It sharpened my interest in science.  It gave me the idea that the kids’ books I’d been reading, wonderful as they were, didn’t hold a candle to mature, somewhat complex and difficult material.”

          Menaker at Nantucket Book Festival 

Daniel Menaker’s life is replete with difficult (and humorous) material, which he captures in his memoir My Mistake.

In our conversation, he spoke in compelling detail about his long battle with generalized anxiety disorder.

He explains how he has perdured.  I wasn’t familiar with that word.

Endure, he explained to me, means to put up with something.
Perdure is to go through it and handle it for a longer time.

Menaker has perdured a long-term anxiety disorder

He has perdured two bouts of lung cancer.

You might say he perdured as his mother, a talented editor at Fortune Magazine, continually corrected his grammar.  He never rebelled.  A mistake, says Menaker’s therapist. 

Perhaps Daniel Menaker’s ability to perdure was nurtured by his love of reading challenging material -- “what Yates calls the fascination of what’s difficult.”

He recounts how he will often read a passage multiple times until he fully understands it.

But what to read?  What is worth our time?  What books offer such value in our lives they would, under certain conditions (and please don’t take this too literally) be worth stealing.

The answer, says Menaker, is connected to one’s age.

This king of fiction, now in his eight decade, has noticed that, for him, fiction is providing diminishing returns.

“Near the end of your life,” he tells me, “if you’ve read enough and edited enough … and lived your life … the explosions of recognition” happen less often with fiction.

Instead, these “explosions of recognition” come, more often, from non-fiction, especially about “the life of our species and where we’re going. “

Which explains why, as I followed him browsing through Mitchell’s Book Corner in Nanucket, he locked onto the science section.  His eyes lit up as he noticed a book by the great biologist Edward O. Wilson.

Wilson, he informs me, is about to publish a new book called The Meaning of Human Existence – part of his mission to guide humankind on a path to protecting the natural ecosystems which sustain life on earth.  

I did not know of Daniel Menaker before the Nantucket Book Festival.

I discovered him by accident.

Like a great book.