Taking Part: A Twentieth-Century Life (Singular Lives) by Robert Josephy
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Overview: The memoir of a bashful nonagenarian–who here fails to provide an intimate enough view of himself or of his sometimes- famous friends. The story of this book designer, apple farmer, and conservationist begins interestingly enough, with glimpses of early 20th-century New York and of Josephy’s childhood among upper- middle-class Jews–and with portents of the social consciousness that he would develop. Josephy knew people both fascinating and famous, including Arthur Miller, Alexander Calder, and H.L. Mencken. But a self-confessed wariness of emotion seems to prevent him from describing his relationships–even with family and wives- -in compelling detail. At times, this is downright annoying, as when the author breaks off telling about his father’s difficulties by saying he doesn’t “care to describe” them, or when he hints that a neighbor was sleeping with someone famous but doesn’t say who. But there’s an undeniable decency about Josephy, and his book makes clear that he not only “took part” but was an innovator in modern high-production book design–and that he was a force for good in political and environmental affairs as well. Surprisingly, the next-to-the-end chapters, in which Josephy describes the workings of his apple farm–down to technical operations–are the most involving. Here, the author’s abiding interests–politics, the environment, social relations–are well integrated as he convinces us that, despite personal difficulties and cultural fragmentation, he’s managed to cultivate a satisfactory life. With the exception of a few chapters, then, Josephy’s memoir likely will prove more interesting to his progeny than to the general public.
Genre: Non-Fiction – Biographies –