For a long time I read at work. My work itself involved reading: I was a copy editor at The Village Voice. But some days, vast lulls separated the articles, and my fellow copy editors and I would burrow into books at our desks. Michael read Ivy Compton-Burnett. Bruce had his Robert Musil. Jane gave me two of her DeLillos; I gave her Jonathan Coe. If you finished your novel, you could go to the long row of file cabinets near the mailboxes, where editors would discard their unwanted review copies, old issues of Paranoia and The Nation.
This was in the mid-90s, before the colossal time-suck known as the Internet was de rigueur on everyone’s computer. In fact, we didn’t even have computers. We used an editing system called Atex, amber letters glowing on dusty screens so old the black fields had burned to brown. A story editor would put an article in the copy queue and one of us would call it up, make corrections, and place our initials in the space at the top. When I first started, I would keep checking the queue and pounce on any new piece. Then I learned to sit back like the veterans in the department and at least finish the chapter I was reading.
A friend with access to a university library had taken out a book for me: Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy, in three volumes. I’d been desperate to read Burton, probably because I myself had slipped into workplace melancholy. Was I beginning my career, or had I made a serious wrong turn? The books could be kept for three weeks, which meant I had to read a volume a week, roughly a hundred pages a day. I became a reading machine. I copied out pungent passages and arcane words like I was studying for an exam. Burton detected the roots of the disease nearly everywhere he looked, but in my case, “overmuch Study” seemed the most relevant: “Why lose the colour of our youthful age/By constant bending o’er the stupid page?”
Not long after, I bought a used copy of Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men, mainly because the title came from the Anatomy. Here was a kindred spirit, I thought; Powell first encountered Burton’s work at his job. (“There are worse places to read about Melancholy than a publisher’s office,” he wrote in his memoirs.) Soon I was hooked on Powell, and began my leisurely march through his twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time, with its intertwining lives and parties in which the narrator calmly discerns an entire social structure at key moments of flux.
I would go to parties, too, but feel self-conscious, as if everyone was asking, What are you doing with your life? I wanted to write, of course, but after several years at the paper I had barely published anything. I did exchange convivial Atex messages with some of the editors, but otherwise contact was minimal. Ron, a longtime editor who now handled the letters section, was my favorite correspondent. He was effusive about my rare appearances in print. The smallest bylined blurb would elicit immediate praise, and in those lean days such words buoyed me. A Dickens fan, Ron was also a Powellite, and when, in 2001, a short film review of mine prompted a complimentary letter, he headlined it “A Question of Upbringing” — a tip of the hat to the first volume of Powell’s Dance. The headline didn’t have much to do with the letter, but I appreciated the wink.