Gay Talese: What I Read

Novels, The New York Times, anything with a sports page

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How do other people deal with the torrent of information that pours down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts and the literary world, to hear their answers to these questions. This is drawn from a conversation with Gay Talese, the author of "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold," "Vogueland," "Mr. Bad News," "The Silent Season of a Hero" and countless other pieces of literary journalism that could have been written by no one else. His new book Frank Sinatra Has a Cold And Other Essays is out now.

I get up around 7 a.m. My first reading each morning is The New York Times, which is delivered. It's at my door around 6:30. I try to get up and go downstairs before my wife [editor and publisher Nan Talese] so I'll have the paper read before she comes down to the dining room and turns on WQXR. I want to be halfway into the paper by the time she comes down and reads the part of the paper I'm not reading, and before the housekeeper, a French woman who's been with us for 20 years, comes to walk these two Australian terriers we have.

So the routine here is for me to have a little quiet time to concentrate on what I do, as I read the newspaper from cover-to-cover. There's a lot of time devoted to reading before 9:30. Between 7 o'clock and 9:30, I probably have about 40 minutes or half-an-hour of quietude where I make my own coffee and get as far as probably through the main front section.

I read the New York Times as I told you. What I didn't tell you is, it takes me at least two hours to read. Because I read it. I read every section of that paper. I start on page one and I go right through all the sections. I read Business Day and I read the Home section and I read the Arts section and I read the Style section. And of course, the Sports section. I always have Sports last, I don't know why it's true. The Sports section is only read by me, my wife doesn't ever look at it, so I can take that with me later on to the gym.

I used to work for the paper back in the 1950s and 1960s. My professional career with the Times began when I was 21 years old. I worked first as a copy boy for few years, went into the Army for two years, and came back in 1956 and worked as a reporter for nine years. There's hardly anybody there today that was there when I was there. But I read the paper and follow the new generation of Times people from their various assignments. I see names in European bureaus that were once in Asia. I see people like Dan Barry, who is one of my favorite writers at The Times. I remember him when he was a New York correspondent, and now he travels the United States writing about whatever he writes about. It's always very interesting, he's a very fine writer. Jeffrey Gettleman, he's in Africa, but I remember him elsewhere. You follow these names. Joyce Wadler, for example, writes for the Home section, she used to write this kind of bold-faced column. She's a very sprightly writer, I follow her. Of course, Maureen Dowd, I used to follow her when she was a Washington correspondent, before she was a columnist. Now Elisabeth Bumiller does what Maureen Dowd used to do before Maureen Dowd had her column.

As I said the dogs make it tough to read the paper. Between Bach being on WQXR and the news interrupting you have this noise. So what I usually do is, when the housekeeper arrives at 9:30, I'm out of there. I go upstairs and I take maybe the Sports section with me and I dress for the day. I then go down to where I work, which is a basement, what I call a bunker, under the house. I take a of thermos filled with the coffee that I've made upstairs downstairs to my little office beneath the house. I have a kitchenette where I can make eggs.

Then I get to work. I work on my own stuff--a book I'm working on, or maybe a magazine article that I'm doing. So I'll go down and work in the bunker where there's no phone. I'm not into the technology, as you've probably heard me say, you've probably picked it up. I do not own a cell phone. I have an old computer that's really a typewriter, it's about 20 years old. It's just something I type on. But I do have typewriters, I still have them, I still use them. I know a man who repairs typewriters, who supplies parts for typewriters, who gives you tape for typewriters. He's in his late 70s, and he's as old as I am. He just wanders around town making house calls for typewriters that are in disrepair or typewriters that are ailing from whatever typewriters ail from

Around one o'clock I go out to a gym called Equinox which is on 63rd Street, on Lexington Avenue. I'll buy the New York Post and the New York Daily News at a newsstand. There's a shoe shine stand up 62nd, off Lexington, towards Third, and there's a woman, her name is Monica. I think she's from Ecuador. She gives the best shine in New York--there's a sign outside that says 'Best shine in New York.' In this little shoe shop, a little bit larger than a telephone booth, there is this guy that repairs shoes and this woman named Monica--a hefty woman, a vigorous woman--who gives your shoes a shine you can't get anywhere else in the city of New York. Up on the stand there, she always has the New York Post and the New York Daily News, and if I haven't bought those two papers, I read them there while I'm getting my shoes shined.

Around 2 p.m. is when I usually start off my exercise on the stationary bike. That's when I finish reading The New York Times Sports section. If I haven't gone to Monica in the shoe shop, I'll read the New York Post or the New York Daily News. Sometimes there are papers left there, like the Wall Street Journal or maybe USA Today. You see them in the locker room, someone left them there, I'll pick them up and read them.

If you're reading the tabloids, you can put your little headset on and watch the little row of television sets against the wall. In my case, that's channel 53 [YES] most afternoons, I'm always watching Mike Francesa. He used to host Mike and the Mad Dog? Now the Mad Dog's gone. I watch this guy, with these maniacs that are sports fans calling in. I'm diverted by that stuff, I'm a sports fan. I'm long removed from sports writing, which I did my first two years with The Times, but a little bit of me is still back in that world. I follow the teams. I follow the Yankees mainly. I follow the Giants. I wish Plaxico Burress would come back. I followed basketball a little more last year, because of the Knickerbockers and the two stars they acquired.

What I'm trying to say is, during the early part of the day, I'm reading only newspapers. I don't read Time or Newsweek at that time if I read them at all. I don't read Esquire. Sometimes I'll read leftover magazines in the gym, like Vanity Fair maybe or GQ.

I leave the gym around 3:30 and go back to my house and return to the bunker. I work there from 4 o'clock until maybe 7 or 8. My wife comes back from the office around 7, 7:30, and we usually have something to do at night. I go out almost every night. But I'm never out too late, because I have a lot of book reading to do. This is the second phase of my reading. The morning is newspapers, the evening is books. My wife has been in the book business for all of her married life, and I've been in the book business and the newspaper business and the magazine business and the writing business for all of my life. The two of us probably know most of the active writers that live in New York, or pass through, or come from overseas. So we have a great number of acquaintances and sometimes friends and sometimes even close friends who are writers. And of course writers are always writing and telling you what they're writing and sending you what they're writing. And in my case, I have a big pressure of producing blurbs for the writers that know me personally and tell me that they've finished a book and would I read it and if I like it would I give a blurb to the publisher of that book. And I find it hard to refuse, because I know these people personally. And If I respect their work, I say yes, I'll be glad to.

In the last few months, to give you an example of the books I've been through: there's a wonderful new book by John Lithgow, the actor, I know him a little bit. It's called Drama. It's not released yet, but I read it already. I blurbed that book. And of course Oscar Hijuelos, I know him personally, he has a memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes. And there's a book by young Louisa Thomas, she's the great-great granddaughter of Norman Thomas who ran six or seven times as a socialist for president of the United States. Her father Evan Thomas used to be the editor of Newsweek. I read her book, it's called Conscience, it's an excellent book.

I prefer fiction to non-fiction because it's better written. From the time I was young, it was my favorite ficiton writers who inspired me to write non-fiction as if it were fiction. Not faking information or changing information or exagerrating information--the storytelling technique. It was all drawn on my enthusiasm from my favorite fiction writers--Carson McCullers and John Cheever and Hemingway and Irwin Shaw, a wonderful forgotten writer. And of course F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite writer of all-time.

I don't read the Washington Post with any regularity. I don't subscribe to it. I don't subscribe to any other paper except the New York Observer, which comes on Wednesdays. There's only so much you can devote in any one day to reading. But you must read. That's why I feel I must read the newspapers first. Why? Because I really want to know what is going on. But I don't have more than one main paper that I can rely upon, and that is The Times. That is the paper of record and the paper of significance. It does the best job of any paper in the whole world of covering the world. And of covering the world of the artist, and of covering the world of the athlete, and of covering the world of the interior decorator, and the statesman, and the politician, and the politician that sends pictures of himself nude to some women who don't even know him. These worlds are reflected everyday by the writers and columnists, and shaped by editors who are top analyzers of the news.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.