As a young man growing up in Omaha, Kurt Andersen dreamed of moving east. His parents were big readers; his mother was an amateur Willa Cather scholar who gave talks on the Nebraska novelist at women’s groups and book clubs. Andersen wrote for his junior high school paper, and at fifteen he discovered Emerson and Thoreau. His eldest sister went to graduate school in Chicago, which suggested to him the possibility of an academic career. When Andersen got to Harvard and started writing for the Lampoon, he began thinking about the life of a writer instead. “George Plimpton was hanging around, and John Updike was hanging around,” he recalls. “It all seemed plausible.”
A recent installment of Andersen’s awardwinning radio show, Studio 360, paid tribute to The Great Gatsby, and something in his own midwestern background and eastward dreaming strikes the Fitzgerald chord. Like Jay Gatsby, he looks dapper in a pink oxford shirt on a spring morning. But where Gatsby’s journey east does not end well—office stress, unruly houseguests, trouble with the ladies—Andersen’s postcollegiate move to New York found him writing 90-second radio essays for Gene Shalit and ultimately succeeding as a journalist, editor, critic, curator, novelist, and radio personality, usually inhabiting three or more of the roles in symbiosis. As for Gatsby, it bears the distinction of being a book Andersen has read multiple times, though not for sentimental reasons. “I’m such a slow reader,” he says. “There are only so many hours left to me in life to read. I realized The Great Gatsby is one of the few books I’ve reread a few times because it’s short.”
Andersen’s interests in all things artistic— from architecture and design, which he covered for Time in the ’80s, to the history of photography, which he drew on for his latest novel, Heyday, published this spring—meet on the congenially crowded bookshelves of his Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, home. Then they overflow into inviting piles on all available surfaces. The downstairs shelves hold poetry and general nonfiction: biography, history, art and design, architecture, essays, and reference. These sections are organized according to various sensible methods, by subject or author or chronology, except for art and design, which is not organized at all but just looks good. Upstairs in the bedroom is fiction, which wends its way from a to z by author, culminating in a small explosion of books stacked on Andersen’s night table and the surrounding floor. This is the “bullpen,” the current crop of “things I don’t want to go back into the pool”: an issue of Cabinet; a paperback copy of The Hobbit; Benjamin’s Illuminations; A. M. Homes’s new memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter; The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz; and some two dozen others. It is balanced by the equally sizable stack on the night table of his wife, the writer and editor Anne Kreamer. In his home office are more piles: books that he used to research Heyday, which takes place in 1848, and recent acquisitions, including the hot-off-thepress debut issue of Condé Nast’s business magazine, Portfolio.
And, of course, there are Andersen’s own publications, including a book of essays, The Real Thing (1980); a best-selling novel, Turn of the Century (1999); and the eight years of Spy plus just over two and a half years of New York under his editorship, shelved to the right of his desk and looking amusingly scholarly in their dark library bindings. It is easy to imagine a student in the future diving into these tomes to unearth the argot of the greed era, just as Andersen consulted the periodicals, dictionaries, and diaries of the mid-nineteenth century to establish the vernacular of Heyday, delighting in the discovery of such seemingly modern expressions as “I’m there.” (Our future student might similarly delight in finding that the Oxford English Dictionary credits Spy with the coinage of murderabilia, as in “The indoor collection is dominated by JFK murderabilia.”) But ask Andersen whether he has any favorite issues of Spy or even any favorite pieces, and he responds like a parent asked to name his favorite child. “No, I liked the whole magazine,” he says. “I like that you could have all these weird things— all these different acts in a circus—and here they were in one magazine.”
All those weird things—plus a lot of parties— started at the Puck Building in 1986, when Andersen and coeditor Graydon Carter, fresh-faced Time alums and nonnative New Yorkers, launched their irreverent Gotham-centric magazine in a newly renovated office space, a steal at less than two thousand dollars a month. That the building had originally housed Puck, “the Spy magazine of the 1880s,” as Andersen describes it, was “too good to be true.” An architectural plan of the Puck’s renovation hangs on the south wall of Andersen’s office, evoking that heady time he remembers as “a perfect realization of the best aspects of collaboration—to suddenly be able to hire a group of young people and have ideas for stories and have these people do them.” Above his desk hangs another piece of Spy memorabilia: an illustration for the magazine, by Steven Guarnaccia, that imagines the Empire State Building as it might have been designed at various moments in recent architectural history, beginning with Philip Johnson in 1965, featuring Michael Graves and Frank Gehry, and ending with Johnson again in ’91. Alas, there are no framed portraits from Spy’s popular Separated at Birth? feature (Tammy Faye Bakker and an Ewok? Walter Cronkite and Captain Kangaroo?), but Andersen says, “Having developed that knack, I still have it.” Presumably, these days he just does it in his head.
Though Andersen shows a creator’s pride in possessing the “whole oeuvre” of his editions of Spy and New York, he says he is not a collector of books per se. Still, he adds, “I have stumbled across a few precious things that I don’t put coffee cups on,” including a first edition of Catch-22, inscribed to him by Joseph Heller. He also has a curiosity or two—for example, a couple of books about an eighteenthcentury eccentric, Lord Timothy Dexter, who was the subject of a book by the novelist John Marquand, like Dexter a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts. “Marquand was a slightly eccentric writer who wrote about this very eccentric writer,” Andersen says. “I thought back when I was more interested in eccentrics qua eccentrics that I would write a book about him.” Andersen recommends the fiftieth birthday, which he celebrated three years ago, as a surefire way to acquire interesting items. Among his gifts was a charming painting by Maira Kalman depicting his own bedside table with, accurately enough, lots of books piled on it.
Andersen writes in his office in the morning; he has a regular column in New York and hopes to begin work on a novel soon. He spends the afternoon prepping for Studio 360, which covers culture from classic novels to hip-hop, “reading the books and watching the movies and listening to the music and seeing the plays and doing the research and working on the scripts and all that.” Since the show began broadcasting in fall 2000, he has considered more or less everything he reads to be potential material. “I have that luxury,” he says. “I can read for pleasure, but if I really like a book I can say, ‘Let’s get this author on the show.’ Pleasure and work are indistinguishable.”
If you’ve shopped at the SoHo used-book mecca Housing Works in the last few years, you might have benefited from Andersen’s first major library “deaccession,” when he and Kreamer sold their house upstate and realized they didn’t have room for all those extra books. The Carroll Gardens home is due for some new shelving, Andersen says, and he anticipates another purge in the process. He’s not planning to let go of the books that helped him during the five years he worked on Heyday, though. “I gave a talk about this novel a few months ago at the New York Institute for the Humanities,” he says. “It was scary, because it was all these NYU scholars and intellectuals, and Anne Hollander”—the esteemed historian of costume—“was in the audience. She said, ‘You mentioned organza, and I don’t believe organza was called organza in 1848.’” With the help of his sources, Andersen was able to prove that he was right. So those books stay. “I was plunged into that world for so long—even if I never ever need them, I’ll keep them.”
Radhika Jones is managing editor of the Paris Review.
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