10 February 2011

Review: Reading Jackie by William Kuhn

In Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, William Kuhn begins with the premise that each book Jackie Kennedy Onassis helped bring to print, either as an acquisitions editor or as a line editor, reflected a specific facet of her life. Several of her books, for example, focused on the arts, marriage, feminist issues, and politics.

It's important to note right off the bat that Kuhn's biography is not a tell-all investigation into Jackie's life. The story of Jackie's twenty years in the publishing industry is told with the utmost respect for her as a person and editor as well as for her privacy. The woman you meet in these pages is smart, strong, funny and a bit sheltered from the real world.

Kuhn mines the content or acquisition history of many of the hundred or so books on Jackie's list for insight into her life and mind. For example, her love of fairy tales and personal relationship with Bill Moyers helped spark the idea of bringing Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth to press, and her famous sense of style made her a natural for working on several Tiffany coffee-table books.

It is interesting that she was the force behind a number of works about women in history, many of whom--like Marie Antoinette--were married to rulers or presidents. And Jackie's love of ballet and dancing was reflected in books such as Gelsey Kirkland's Dancing on My Grave and Sarah Giles's Fred Astaire.

Reading Jackie is not, however, without some flaws. Because the story of Jackie's editing career is not told chronologically, a couple anecdotes are repeated (some several times), which I found disconcerting and disruptive. Furthermore, quite a bit is made of how down to earth Jackie could be. While I can certainly appreciate the importance of showing that Jackie was a hard worker and was kind and respectful to others, the point was driven home a little too hard.

My other quibble has to do with the connections between her books and her life and worldview. I question how many of the projects were totally of her choosing and how many were assigned to her, thus weakening the premise that each book provides insight into Jackie's mind. [EDIT: please read the author's comment addressing this issue.] At times I felt Kuhn had to stretch a bit to link a title with a particular aspect of Jackie's psyche.

On the other hand, Reading Jackie will appeal to people in the publishing industry, book lovers, and fans of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. You may be surprised by the books she edited and by the authors she nurtured.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 12 hr, 30 min) read by Susan Denaker. Denaker's ability to use accents for Jackie and the many other people quoted was outstanding, despite a few odd inflections and unexpected pauses. Reading Jackie, however, is a book best read in print. It is difficult for listeners to remember the names of all the people mentioned and the titles of the books analyzed. In addition, the print version contains her publishing list and other other resources that are missing from the audiobook.

Reading Jackie at Powell's
Reading Jackie at Book Depository
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Published by Doubleday, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780385530996
YTD: 18
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: C
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Sandy Nawrot 2/10/11, 7:16 AM  

I think your issues are totally founded. I don't know alot about the editing business, but I know alot about business in general, and unless you are in charge, many of your projects ARE dictated to you. I admire the author's attempt to gain insight into this lady who was a real class act. I listened to Denaker with Angelology, and while she wasn't the most expressive narrator, she is killer with her accents.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick 2/10/11, 7:53 AM  

I learned quite a bit about her efforts in editing and the book business when I visited the JFK Library in Boston last summer - I walked away from the museum actually much more interested in her than anything else. There's been a couple of books that have come out about Jackie of late, but I might start with one of the other ones first. And I'll definitely pick up the printed version for this one, as you recommend! (By the way, I found an audio book I like and posted about it a couple of days ago - I'm now really digging audio books and am taking my time on finding the right one!) Thanks! :)

William 2/10/11, 10:13 AM  

This is a generous and thoughtful review and I'm grateful for it.

I think one of the differences between Jacqueline Onassis and other editors is this: very few projects were assigned to her. She had a higher degree of choice than most editors; she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do and generally didn't.

Therefore, her list is somewhat more indicative of her own personal taste than editors who are obligated to work on commercial projects they may loathe. Even the stories behind the few projects she took on and would rather not have, e.g. Michael Jackson's Moonwalk, shed quite a lot of light on her and on her attitude to her own fame.

Nevertheless, I see the point Beth Fish Reads is making and respect her judgment.

On Susan Denaker and accents: she was able to use an audiotape of Jackie's voice on a voicemail message that one of her authors saved. The others she made up herself. I think she's wonderful.

Thank you very much for posting so intelligently about my book.

bermudaonion 2/10/11, 10:46 AM  

As a book lover who is fascinated with the publishing industry, I have a feeling I would enjoy this book. I'll remember to seek out the print version after your review.

Anonymous,  2/10/11, 11:19 AM  

As someone who works in the publishing industry currently, I would love to read this book and see how it differs due to the differences in technology, the world, and even how the editorial department was run. This book sounds fascinating, BFR, and I think the author sounds gracious as well. I'm thrilled he stopped by to thank you for a well-written review.

Zibilee 2/10/11, 1:32 PM  

I don't know very much about Jackie Kennedy, but the fact that she was so involved in the publishing industry really makes me want to learn more about her. Though it sounds as if this book had it's flaws when it comes to repetition, I also think it sounds like a unique read about a very multifaceted woman. Great review, Beth, I will be looking for this one!

Barbara 2/10/11, 2:21 PM  

Like Coffee and a Book Chick, I have visited the JFK Library in Boston and would urge anyone interested in the Kennedy family to go there ASAP. There is a recreation of Bobby's Atty. Genl. office with drawings by his children on the walls which tore my heart out.

Sara Croft,  2/10/11, 3:32 PM  

I just watched "Smash His Camera" the other night, a documentary about a photographer/paparazzi that was obsessed with Jackie. He has hundreds of thousands of photos of her, it was very interesting.

Snowcatcher 2/10/11, 4:16 PM  

I thoroughly enjoyed your review, especially the comparison of the two formats, as I generally prefer audio so I can multitask. Good to know info. What makes this review especially wonderful is the author stopping in and commenting! I hope you are dancing on air! Liked reading about "Smash His Camera," too, and may just have to check that out as well.

Julie P. 2/10/11, 4:18 PM  

I have read so many books about Jackie O that I should probably read this one too!

Robin M 2/10/11, 5:00 PM  

I've never read any books about Jackie O. Will have to look into it.

caite 2/10/11, 7:56 PM  

while I am not a fan of the Kennedys (yes, even thought I come from an Irish Catholic family) I always liked Jackie more, how she created her own life after her husband was killed, with a serious career, and how she raised her kids.
Great review.

Rebecca Rasmussen 2/11/11, 9:09 AM  

This is interesting to me because as an author I always want to know more about what editors are up to and how the whole process works from that side of things. And I love Jackie O of course, so this one sounds pretty interesting.

Tribute Books 2/11/11, 10:57 AM  

What a unique focus on Jackie - as a book editor/career woman - which is overlooked a lot of the time.

Anonymous,  2/11/11, 9:59 PM  

I actually looked at this at the bookstore last week. I was afraid it might be more of a gossipy look at the people Jackie O worked with, though, so I put it back. Sounds like it might be worth taking a second look!

Margot 2/12/11, 11:58 AM  

I appreciate your honest review of this book. I too picked it up and put it down. Now I'll go back and pick it up again. I also appreciate the author's clarification on one of your points. I've always been fascinated with Jackie's life story. I'll read this for a different look at her.

Jenners 2/12/11, 10:00 PM  

It is hard to imagine that Jackie was "just an ordinary worker" who got books assigned to her. I feel she probably had her pick of what she wanted to work on ... but I could be wrong. It is just hard to imagine that she didn't!

I would be curious to see the list of books she worked on. That would be the most interesting part to me I think.

Swapna 2/15/11, 2:35 PM  

I have this one on audio as well. I hope to listen to it soon, as I've read very little about Jackie O (besides what I've seen in articles, etc. - I've never read a book about her). I think this would be an interesting place to start.

The Bumbles 2/16/11, 12:56 PM  

A very unique approach to a very well covered person. Thanks for the introduction.

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