The Good Reader

Unlike many other, less famous writers, Howard Zinn treated a young editorial assistant like a person. Rachel Toor remembers him fondly.

February 3, 2010

I fell in love with him first over the phone. A man older than my father, a man I hadn’t yet met in person, a man about whom I knew little except that he was kind to me, but someone who was different in obvious and profound ways from the people I encountered every day.

In 1984 I had just started a full-time job as an editorial assistant. I was fortunate to be working for an editor who saw it as part of her mission to educate me. Susan would invite me to sit in on her hectoring conversations with authors, where she would tell them, harsh and didactic in both her tone and her language, exactly what was wrong with their thinking. She would explain to me how manuscripts get shaped into books, what the expectations of a reader are and how the author can’t afford to frustrate them. She talked a lot about fairness. She was the first proud Reaganite I ever thought was smart.

A part of my job, after I’d finished typing up correspondence, preparing projects to go into production, trafficking copy and marketing materials, and answering the phone, was to line up readers to report on manuscripts. This was just as Oxford was starting to publish scholarly books, and it was an easy way to build a list. Peer review counted more than an editor’s good judgment and took less time. Susan had only to look quickly at the first few pages and decide whether or not a project was worthy of being “sent out.” She’d give me a list of names, or tell me to call one person (usually an author) and ask for suggestions. This was one of my least favorite parts of the job. You’d have to make a zillion phone calls, and leave hundreds of messages. Sometimes academics were nice, but they were rarely in their offices. They could be mean or pompous, and would sometimes lecture me on the manuscript they hadn’t yet read. I imagine that now, with e-mail, things are a whole lot easier.

Sometimes I’d strike out so many times I would end up with a reader who wouldn’t be a natural extension of the scholars on the original list, which is probably how it happened, because now I can’t believe that Susan would ever have asked me to call him as a reader. He was surprised at being asked to do something for Oxford. But he talked to me in a way that other readers -- busy, name-brand academics -- didn’t.

He wondered what it was like to do my job. (I loved it. Really? he said. You love your work?) Where had I come from? (College -- I’d started working at Oxford one day a week before I’d even graduated. He asked which college, and then didn’t say much.) Where did I live? (Manhattan. He’d grown up, he said, in Brooklyn. His accent, in fact, reminded me of my grandparents who still lived there.) Where had I grown up? (In the boonies of upstate New York.) My parents’ jobs? (My father was a bitter, third-rate academic at a state university.) Future plans? (No plans -- I took this job instead of going for my dream, working on a dude ranch in Wyoming. Too bad, he said, that my dream hadn’t quite worked out. Yet.)

I can’t remember what manuscript I’d sent him, or what he sent back in his reader’s report. I do remember that Susan was surprised to see a report from him and to hear that we’d had a long talk. And I remember that not long after, he called to say that he was going to be in New York City and wanted to come by the office. Come by, I said.

He wasn’t anything like what I expected. He was tall, very tall, and athletic-looking, with a strong face, and salty dark hair. He was handsome in ways that I didn’t think a sixty-year-old man could ever be.

We sat in my office and chatted. He told me about his kids -- there were two, both older than me. Mostly, though, he wanted to know about me.

How much is there for a 22-year-old girl to say about herself? I talked about my work. I talked about how this job was like being in graduate school. I got to learn not only about publishing, but about a whole bunch of academic fields I hadn’t gone deep into in college, where I read mostly English literature, a little bit of criticism, and dabbled in philosophy. Now I was immersed in political science, sociology and, when Susan could sneak it in, history. Oxford was then divided -- in divisive and rancorous ways -- by traditional disciplinary lines and editorial jealousies, and fears of “poaching” buzzed like flies in the hallways.

We editorial assistants had our own sources of strife. Some had to work for bosses who were, if I’m to be honest, bat-shit crazy. Others were chained to their desks, barely allowed to leave the building for lunch. Most didn’t get the kind of author contact I was allowed, because most editors didn’t share their jobs as fully as Susan did. I got to go to important meetings while my friends were typing. I went to lunches at fancy expensive account restaurants as long as I got the Xeroxing done.

I told him about the opportunities being handed to me, the fact that I didn’t even know, most of the time, when I was talking to people who were famous in their fields. I was paid to read, I told him, to learn. It was a great job.

Later, he would confess that he told his students about me -- that I was one of the few people he knew who was truly happy with her work. Now I don’t know whether to believe this; I suspect he said it to make me feel good and that he knew that someday I would realize that things were not so simple.

We began having lunches. I flexed a fledgling expense account to take him out when he came to New York, and I made time to see him on the occasions when I got to travel to Boston. I would always ask what he was working on, acting like a big girl editor. After my first year at OUP I left Susan to work for the American history editor, so this would have made sense, but it didn’t interest him in the least. His work was different from most of Oxford’s list; in many ways, I later realized, we were the mainstream he was reacting against.

Once he called me up to say that he had written a play about Emma Goldman; it was being produced in New York, directed by his son. He gave me the information and I said I would go. He told me to introduce myself to his son. I went to the play -- enraptured by the fact of knowing the playwright -- but was too shy to track down his son, who was tall and handsome like his father.

One day, over lunch in Boston, I grilled him and made me tell him his story. It’s a familiar one, by now: He was the son of Jewish immigrant, and began his career as a rabble-rouser at age 17. At that point I had moved to Brooklyn, and he talked about the Brooklyn Naval Yard, about meeting Roslyn, his wife. He talked about joining the Army to fight on the side of good against evil. “I was a bombardier,” he said. He said it twice, as if he could hardly believe it We were eating lunch, maybe at Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, and I knew he was telling me something important. He told me about the box he’d stuffed all his army belongings into -- his medals, his papers -- and that he’d written “Never again” across the top.

He told me about teaching at Spelman College and his work during as part of the civil rights movement. He told me about getting fired.

And then he talked about Boston University and about John Silber. He said that he taught the biggest course at the university and that he wasn’t allowed any teaching assistants. The president had offered him some, he said, if he cut down his class size. Way down. He was on the eve of retirement, but said that he wanted to stick around just to irritate Silber.

At that point, I hadn’t read A People’s History of the United States. I knew Howard Zinn only as a professor who had read a manuscript for me and become, unexpectedly, my friend. And then I read him, and fell in love with him in myriad other ways. For his bravery. For his lucidity. And of course, for the generosity and authenticity of his vision. I have met labor historians who have no truck with laborers; defenders of social justice who say racist and sexist and plain old bigoted things after a cocktail or two.

There are many others who can talk about how Howard Zinn changed not only their lives, but the world. I am well aware of my good fortune. When I needed the figure of a good father, someone wise and kind, challenging and encouraging, I did a slipshod job at work and called him to read a manuscript.


Rachel Toor teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane.


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