A Moment With Harold Evans
“I appreciate engineers, I wrote a book about their achievements, but I deprecate what they and other techies do to English words. Hey, these nouns and verbs aren’t bits of silicon you can dope with chemicals (boron, phosphorus, and arsenic), drop into a kiln at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and slice and dice. Words breathe. They need TLC—you know,”
― Harold Evans, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters
When the world seems to be looking too far inward, when everyone around you seems to be spun up into things that shouldn’t matter, when the conversation turns towards the latest scandal in Hollywood or Washington or Buckingham Palace… seek other voices. Because the only way you’ll grow is to rise up towards it. The larger conversations in the world are happening without you until you join the adult table. When you get to the adult table, by all means be ready to join the conversation.
Sir Harold Evans passed away last week at the age of 92. In a wild case of six degrees of separation I once had Thanksgiving dinner with Harold Evans and his wife Tina Brown, putting me literally at the adult table with two of the most influential and brilliant people in the publishing industry. I was a college student who happened to be in the right place at the right time – they lived next door to the place we were for the long weekend and we invited them over. Simple. The parents were up to the conversation at hand, I wasn’t quite up to the task – a college kid who still thought he knew everything and not bothering to do the work needed to get closer to there. Harold Evans asked me a question about which candidate in the Republican Primary I liked, and without any thought to the matter I blurted out “Bob Dole” without explanation. It seemed like a safe answer at the time. He looked at me patiently and diverted to other topics with someone else, ending our conversation instead of trying to draw any logic out of my answer. He and I both knew I’d punted. I always regretted not being better prepared for a conversation like that.
“His parents had taught him to make the most of himself, so he had. Though he kept a certain working-class deference and friendliness, did not shout, was “Harry” to everyone and would quite kindly tell reporters their copy was hopeless, he had taken on almost every part of the establishment and made it quake.” – Harold Evans’ Obituary, The Economist
Reading about Evans’ life, I was struck by how hard he had worked to raise himself up and to demand the best from himself and others. I remember he was a voracious reader, and would often devour several books on the drive from New York City out to Quogue, New York. As the editor of Random House he needed to read quickly because he had an endless stream of books coming at him. I would try speed-reading a few times over the years attempting to get as much from it as people like Evans did. But I’ve found that speed-reading doesn’t work for me. I like to linger on words and sentences a bit too much. If I were to have that one conversation with him again I might ask how he approached reading. I suspect he did it two ways, for work and for pleasure, and the speed varied based on which it was. It would have been a better conversation than the Republican Primary of 1987-1988.
“Running a newspaper gave him “a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil”. – Harold Evans’ Obituary, The Economist
Harold Evans was fired from The Times by Rupert Murdoch, setting up his move to New York and his rise to the top of the publishing industry. Had he not been fired I would never have met him. He used it as fuel to rise up even higher, and it was surely a gift not having to cater to the whims and biases of Murdoch. Attacking the devil was a purpose, and I wondered sometimes what he thought of the nastiness of present-day politics. But there it was, an interview from 2017 where he called Boris ‘buoyantly reckless’, Trump dangerous and May ‘terrifically smart’. I believe he was on point with all three. No surprise for a man who did the work necessary to find the truth of the matter with the most evasive of characters. Thinking back, I was no match for him at the time. But he helped inspire me to try harder, as I suspect he did with many others over the years. I wish I’d had another conversation with the man, I was more prepared for the next one.