My Mistake by Daniel Menaker


After graduating from Swarthmore (he wanted Dartmouth, like
his brother Mike - Mike of the "dazzling smile" - but his debonair father and
redoubtable mother insisted he go to Swarthmore where they had met), Menaker
started as a fact checker at The New Yorker in 1969. He soon moved on to the
position of editor, a job he held  for
over 20 years, in spite of the magazine’s legendary chief editor, William Shawn, advising
him early on to find a job elsewhere.

In addition to editing at The New Yorker, Menaker also wrote for the magazine and for many other
publications. Later in his life, he was
Editor-in-Chief at Random House, and he also published two books of his short
stories. So the man knows his way around
a sentence, and there are plenty of beautifully-crafted ones in this short,
simple, and very moving memoir about his life in publishing, his family, and
his cancer. That last bit made me sit up
straight certainly, but as he has recently had his fourth "clean" CT scan, he
is happy and hopeful, even pointing out the diseases’ good aspects ("It allows you to
dodge onerous commitments, it strengthens friendships"). His illness is also the reason he has written
this lovely book, in which he takes stock of his life.

And cancer aside (OK, it’s a big aside. . .) it’s been a much
better than average life, complete with a loving family, an interesting and
successful career, and a love affair with words; all this in spite of the pall cast
by his brother’s death after a family football game on Thanksgiving 1967. Menaker
usually had played backfield in the annual family game, but that year, he
goaded his brother, who had bad knees, into playing it. "My mistake," he writes of the switch in
positions, also taking those two simple words to be the title of his memoir. His brother tore a ligament in the game,
which resulted in surgery, which resulted in a blood infection that killed him
when he was not yet 30 years old.

His brother’s death haunts him over the course of his life, and he makes many references to it
throughout the book. He writes that he knows "that I didn’t take a vial of staph
bacteria and pour it into the incision during surgery, and I know that the
accident’s outcome was violently random and arbitrary, and I know that we all
tend to take responsibility for things we aren’t responsible for. But on the other hand, try not to tell me
that there’s no chance that my brother would be alive today if I had not done
what I did."

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