Tina Brown's Must-Reads: On Life, Start To Finish

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:07 pm

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, checks in again with the recommended-reading feature that Morning Edition likes to call Word of Mouth.

This month, Brown selects a book and a pair of articles that take us through life — from creating it and raising children to growing up an only child to a writer's reflections on his battle with cancer.

A Mother's 'Anti-Romantic Child'

Brown's first choice is a memoir by Priscilla Gilman — a Daily Beast contributor, former English professor and mother of a child who turned out not to be what she expected.

"Gilman was an academic," Brown tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "She was teaching classes on Wordsworth, and she'd always had this fantasy, as all mothers do, of the kind of child that she would have who would be absolutely like herself."

But things changed when Gilman took her then-2-year-old son, Benjamin, to a nursery school interview. While Benjamin was able to perform the tasks that were asked of him, the teachers believed he was behaving oddly, and they told Gilman that something wasn't quite right with her son. Brown says Gilman's account of this crushing realization is one of the book's most poignant moments. Gilman writes,

One of the most painful things about these discoveries was that they made me feel that all the things I'd considered unique and special about Benj were instead uncontrollable manifestations of a disorder. He was not unusual; he was typical, ordinary, a classic case. He didn't have an interesting mind; he had faulty wiring.

All of the qualities that Gilman had thought made her son special were in fact symptoms of hyperlexia, a disorder on the spectrum of autism and Asperger's syndrome. His stilted speech, his tendency to echo back questions instead of offering answers, his issues with eye contact — all of these characteristics made Benjamin unable to understand and communicate in the way other children do.

"The book is really about how she copes with this news and alters her understanding of what being a mother is going to be, while at the same time loving her child so much and understanding how she must now approach everything about him differently," Brown says.

A Grown-Up Reflects On Life As An Only Child

For her next pick, Brown recommends an article by Geoff Dyer, published in the latest issue of The Threepenny Review.

"It's about growing up as an only child in Britain with parents who adored him, but who were very poor," Brown says, "although he didn't see them as poor at the time."

Dyer's parents did everything they could to economize: opting for the cheapest versions of everything, rarely going on holiday and even hand-making clothing for his action figures.

"All of this litany of things about his childhood he kind of accepted at the time," Brown says. "[What] he didn't really accept — and what became for him the abiding memory of his childhood — was the long, yawning afternoons when there was absolutely nothing to do."

Forced to come up with ways to amuse himself, Dyer unwittingly prepared himself for his future career as a writer.

"Having to sit there all day long and come up with something to amuse himself, in the end, defined kind of the way he's living today," Brown says.

But Dyer also talks about his transition into adulthood, when he came to realize that the worlds of his parents and his own were beginning to diverge, without anyone left to hold them together.

"In the end, he goes to Oxford, he becomes — of course — brilliant because he sat there reading all the time, and he realizes that he and his parents have got to find some way to connect, because being an only child meant there was no sister or brother who could ... somehow bind this strange little threesome together," Brown says.

So Dyer attempts to reach out to his parents by, at one point, surprising his mother at the school where she works as a cafeteria cook. The surprise leads to a kind of understanding that while Dyer's education may have driven a wedge between them, the family's ultimate goal was for Dyer to lead a more comfortable life than his parents had led.

"[It's] a very touching moment," Brown says. "They embrace and hug each other, and he tries to communicate a sense that there is a world beyond the world that they have."

An Author Loses His Voice, And Discovers A New One

Finally, Brown's last recommendation is Christopher Hitchens' Vanity Fair article about his newfound appreciation for the writer's voice now that his battle with throat cancer has deprived him of his own.

"He's become more and more compelling as a writer," Brown says of Hitchens. "The beautiful essay that he writes here about his voice is really one of the great things that he's written."

Brown says the loss of a voice was particularly profound for Hitchens.

"Christopher Hitchens' voice has always been one of his greatest gifts," she says. "He had a marvelously melodic and resonant voice that he used to great effect, and for him to lose this voice is absolutely a traumatic thing for him."

Brown points to Hitchens' painful description of the process of losing his voice:

Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I "was" my voice.

Brown, who has been friends with Hitchens for nearly four decades, remarks that the author really has managed to define his own unique and natural style of writing — but it wasn't always that way. Hitchens recalls that as a young writer in the '70s, he was advised by The Guardian's Simon Hoggart to write more like he talks — and it worked for him. Hitchens writes that if he had lost his voice earlier in life, he might never have discovered his writer's voice.

"He actually genuinely did find his voice and became a different kind of a literary journalist than he was in the early part of his career," Brown says.

Brown says that instead of depriving him of his voice completely, Hitchens' battle with throat cancer has simply added another layer of complexity to his words.

"There's no doubt that not being able to speak probably has taken him further into himself to write an emotionally pure kind of writing that he really in the past might not have wanted to do, so it's made him a very personal writer in a way," she says. "It is interesting how his prose has changed as the illness has taken hold."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tina Brown is with us once again. She is the editor of The Daily Beast and of Newsweek, and a regular guest on this program. She comes by for a feature we call Word of Mouth. We talk about what she's been reading, learn about it. Hi Tina.

Ms. TINA BROWN (Editor, The Daily Beat, Newsweek): Hi, Steve, how are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing great. It's great to talk with you. I think we last spoke right before the royal wedding. So you must have had a nice time.

Ms. BROWN: We did. I mean it was really an incredibly glorious day. I think it was one of the most fun things I've done recently.

INSKEEP: And yet you managed to work in a little bit of reading since then. You've sent us some readings that will take us all the way through life here, from the beginning to the end. And let's begin at the beginning. There's a book called "The Anti-Romantic Child." The author is Priscilla Gilman.

Ms. BROWN: Indeed, it's really a wonderful memoir by the mother of a child who turned out to be very, very different from the child that she'd always dreamed of. Priscilla Gilman is an academic. She was teaching classes on Wordsworth, and she'd always had this fantasy, as all mothers do, of the kind of child that she would have who would be kind of absolutely sort of like herself, and very much a child she would recognize and so on.

But it turns out that her child was different. Her son had something called hyperlexia which is on the spectrum of autism and Asperger's. And he talks and talks and talks in this way that's very kind of stilted and tends to echo what he's heard. For instance, if you say to him, are you thirsty? He might echo back, are you thirsty, as opposed to I am thirty.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

Ms. BROWN: So there were issues like that, issues of eye contact, issues of not really being able to, it seems, understand and communicate exactly as other kids do in the way that things are put to him and so on.

INSKEEP: Could I just mention, it's excruciating to read her account - and you excerpt some of it in Newsweek here her account of taking this two and a half year old to school for a kind of examination or interview to get into the school. And even though the kid is sitting there, spelling out words at age two and a half with, like, letters in front of him - Benjamin, flapjack, Friday, he can spell - the teachers look at this kid and say that he's not behaving properly and they deliver the mother the crushing news there's something wrong with your child.

Ms. BROWN: Well, that's exactly right and I think one of the most pointed things in the book is when she says one of the most painful things about these discoveries was that they made me feel that all of the things I consider unique and special about Benji were instead uncontrollable manifestations of a disorder.

He wasn't unusual. He was typical, ordinary, a classic case. He didn't have an interesting mind, he had faulty wiring. This was devastating to her, because all these special things about him she thought were so special were in fact the symptoms of this disorder, hyperlexia.

So the book really is about how she copes with this news and alters her understanding of what being a mother is going to be, while at the same time, loving her child so much and understanding how she must now approach everything about him differently.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us an article from a California literary review called "The Threepenny Review." The title is on being an only child. The author is Geoff Dyer.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah, this is a wonderful piece. It's about growing up as an only child in Britain with parents who adored him, actually, but who were very poor, in fact, although he didn't see them as poor at the time. Everything about them they did was about economizing. And he's very funny about it, actually. I mean they never had anything that wasn't kind of handmade, like, you know, he says clothes for my action man, my mom would make them. A Subbuteo soccer pitch, she bought a piece of green base and painted on the lines. We always bought the cheapest versions of things. We hardly ever went on holiday, all of this kind of a litany of things about his childhood.

He kind of accepted at the time, but he didn't really accept, and what became for him the abiding memory of his childhood, was the long yawning afternoons when there was absolutely nothing to do. Nothing. He talks about how in those days afternoons were so long. He played Monopoly with himself. He always was with himself.

And yet, in some ways, of course, it also meant having to sit there all day long and come up with something to amuse himself in the end defined kind of the way he's living today, which is as a writer. He sits there all day at his computer trying to come up with something to amuse himself.

But he also talks very amusingly about the reaction, as he got older, to that childhood. He said at a certain point he became a splurger and always had more than one chocolate bar.

And it's touching at the end too, because he - in the end, he goes to Oxford, he becomes of course brilliant because he sat there reading all the time, and he realizes that he and his parents have got to find some way to connect, because being an only child meant there was no sister or brother who could actually somehow help to bind this strange little threesome together. He somehow tried to reach out to his parents and make them understand a different world that he'd entered now, away from this world of absolutely reduced economy and so on. And there's a very touching moment when he surprises his mother who was a dinner lady in a school. And they embrace and hug each other, and he tries to communicate a sense that there is a world beyond the world that they have.

INSKEEP: So we start at the beginning of life, and now we come to an article in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens, who many people will know as a noted writer who's been suffering from cancer. What is he writing about now?

Ms. BROWN: Well, this is an incredibly moving piece. Chris Hitchens is a very old friend of mine for the last, you know, 35, 40 years, really. And he talks about how having cancer of the throat has meant that, of course, he now has had an attack on his vocal chords which has, of course, taken away his voice. And Christopher Hitchens's voice was always one of his greatest gifts, you know. He speaks had a marvelously melodic and resonant voice that he used, of course, to great effect. And of course, for him to lose this voice is absolutely a traumatic thing for him.

But he also writes about how a voice is so important to a writer, literally. He says writers are always told they need to find their voice, but he himself as a writer was told once by a colleague, Simon Hoggart, that he ought to write more the way he talks. And I understand that actually, because I do remember Christopher writing in a somewhat different way when he was younger and how he actually genuinely did find his voice and because a very different kind of a literary journalist than he was in the early part of his career.

So for him to lose that voice now, as he battles with cancer, you know, has been absolutely a traumatic thing. He says deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence or the amputation of a part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I was my voice.

INSKEEP: Can I mention before he lost his voice, he gave a number of interviews to "60 Minutes" on CBS. They were broadcast not so long ago and he indicated in those interviews his greatest fear was losing the ability to write, that perhaps he would not have the energy or the focus, that he would have nothing more to say. At least you can think, from the evidence of this Vanity Fair article, that he's still writing and writing compellingly.

Ms. BROWN: Well, I think he's become more and more compelling as a writer, actually. And the beautiful essay that he writes here about his voice is really one of the great things that he's written. And there's doubt that not being able to speak probably has taken him further into himself to write a kind of emotionally pure kind of a writing that he really, in the past, might not have wanted to do. So it's made him a very personal writer, in a way, which I would hardly say is a consolation, because it isn't. But it is interesting how his prose has changed as the illness has taken hold.

INSKEEP: The feature is called Word of Mouth. We hear from Tina Brown of the Daily Beast and Newsweek. Tina, thanks as always.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

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