Daniel Menaker

The African Svelte


Inspired by his tenure at The New Yorker, this collection of comical, revelatory errors foraged from the wilds of everyday English comes with commentary by the author, illustrations by Roz Chast, and a foreword from Billy Collins.

During his time at The New Yorker, Daniel Menaker happened across a superb spelling mistake: “The zebras were grazing on the African svelte.” Fascinated by the idea of unintentionally meaningful spelling errors, he began to see that these gaffes, neither typos nor auto-corrects, are sometimes more interesting than their ‘straight-laced’ counterparts.

Through examples he has collected over the course of his decades-long career as an editor and writer, he brings us to a new understanding of language–how it’s used, what it means, and what fun it can be. Illustrated by the inimitable Roz Chast, with a foreword from former poet laureate Billy Collins, “The African Svelte offers thoughtful and intelligent ‘exit Jesus.'” Menaker glances at familiar fumbles like ‘for all intensive purposes’ and ‘doggy-dog world,’ but readers delighted by language will find themselves turning the pages with ‘baited breath’ to discover fresh howlers that have them laughing off their ‘dairy airs.'”


“Haul out the chaise lounge. Daniel Menaker has defied the spell checker tenaciously and redeemed the misspelled word with playful acuity. Paddy O’Furniture forever!”

— Mary Norris

The African Svelte is a whole new comedy of errors. I like to split my bridges”

—Roy Blount, Jr.

“Nobody couldn’t not fail to misunderstand this.”

—George W. Bush

“Almost as interesting as ants, and slightly more interesting than termites.”

—E. O. Wilson


—Serena Williams


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My Mistake

A MEMOIR (2013)

A wry, witty, often tender memoir by a former New Yorker editor, magazine writer, and book publisher who offers great tales of a life in words.

Daniel Menaker started as a fact checker at The New Yorker in 1969. With luck, hard work, and the support of William Maxwell, he was eventually promoted to editor. Never beloved by William Shawn, he was advised early on to find a position elsewhere; he stayed for another twenty-six years. Now Menaker brings us a new view of life in that wonderfully strange place and beyond, throughout his more than forty years working to celebrate language and good writing.

In My Mistake Menaker tells his own story, too—with irrepressible style and honesty—of a life plowing through often difficult, nearly always difficult-to-read, situations. Haunted by a self-doubt sharpened by his role in his brother’s unexpected death, he offers wry, hilarious observations on publishing, child-rearing, parent-losing, and the writing life. But as the years pass, we witness something far beyond the incidental: a moving, thoughtful meditation on years well lived, well read, and well spent. Full of mistakes, perhaps. But full of effort, full of accomplishment, full of life.


“How can something written so accurately be so witty? Don’t you have to cheat a bit to wring the humor out of life? Daniel Menaker has constructed a compelling tale that irises down to a powerful and emotional climax and is delivered in exacting prose woven into affecting poetry.”

— Steve Martin

“Daniel Menaker’s distinctive journey through his own memories is impossible to resist—and not just for those of us with an appetite for literary anecdote. My Mistake is also the story of literary New York, with keen, vivid impressions from Menaker’s Forties childhood, Cold War coming-of-age, and a long career at the epicenter of the publishing industry during the onslaught of the Digital Age.”

—Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

“I can’t remember when I’ve read a memoir this—let’s say ‘soulful.’ Funny, sad, and wryly self-aware, Menaker shines a bright light on his own background, our literary life, and his own path through it.”

—James Gleick, author of The Information


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A Good Talk


The person you’re sitting next to at dinner is explaining photosynthesis. Or you notice that she is holding her eyelids open with her thumbs as you discuss soil-moisture ratios.  Or he says that Swedish people are dumb, and your mother’s maiden name is Inger Svensson. Or you’re not sure whether to admit that you are old enough to appreciate banisters. What do you do?

In A Good Talk, Daniel Menaker, one of America’s most accomplished and personable literary figures, helps you navigate the shallows, reefs, and open seas of conversation.  After discussing the origins of language and social talk, this concise and often hilarious take on the most exclusively human of all activities (along with calculus) explains how good conversations work.  Focusing on first encounters and a single recorded exchange, the author shows that such talks have four stages: Survey, Discovery, Risk, and Roles.  He then addresses the deeper concerns that underlie conversations and their common social dilemmas and opportunities, from insults to instant messaging, from dating to dinner-ordering, from the value of humor to the handling of hubris.

Finally, A Good Talk—which is above all a really good read—considers the physical benefits of conversation and its indispensable place in our social, moral, and political lives. It’s a book to enjoy, learn from, and—yes—talk about.


“It takes nerve to write a book about conversation, given the well-conceived examples already on the market — Cicero, anyone? In this breezy primer, Menaker, a former executive at Random House, adds an urbane, contemporary cast to the discussion of what makes for good talk and why, drawing on everything from the dating scene to New York publishing gossip to studies on the hormone oxytocin to (how could he not?) Barack Obama. ”

The New York Times


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The Treatment

A NOVEL (1998)

Jake Singer is an anxious young schoolteacher in New York—barely on speaking terms with his father, recently abandoned by his girlfriend, and heading for a life of compromise and mediocrity at a prestigious New York prep school. Emotionally paralyzed by a case of the vapors, he embarks on a course of psychoanalysis with a maniacal Cuban-Catholic Freudian—Dr. Ernesto Morales, therapist from hell, a man who wields his sarcasm like a machete in the slash-and-burn process he calls interpretation. Morales’s accent and tactics are worthy of the Spanish Inquisition, and Jake is just trying to keep him at a distance while he plans his escape. But when he meets socialite widow Allegra Marshall, and finds himself upwardly mobile in the Manhattan of serious money and glamour–as he bounces from the couch to Allegra’s bed in the allegedly real world and back again–his whole life begins to take on the eerie, overdetermined quality of an analytic session.

While he struggles to resolve the psychic grudge he bears his parents, Jake becomes embroiled in another parental conflict—of a different kind and with even higher stakes—that may threaten the future of one of Allegra’s adopted children. And if from his horizontal vantage point on Morales’s couch Jake’s world has started to feel suffocatingly predictable, life beyond the couch makes it clear that the world’s true organizing principles are chance and accident: that the only indisputable axiom is happenstance.

With wit, grace, and style, Daniel Menaker has written a hilarious novel about coming to terms with life’s unruliness, about trying to extract meaning from chaos. Jake gets the Treatment—not just from Morales but from the world—and his notion of unending improvement collides with the possibility of taking pleasure when and where he can, and learning to accept love in place of perfection.


“Menaker’s clever, very funny and surprisingly tender first novel is a triumphant satire of Freudianism gone amok, a touching love story and a quintessential picture of New York life.”

Publishers Weekly


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The Old Left


In stories that possess a rare, understated elegance, emotion equipoise, and rich humor, Daniel Menaker traces the life and feelings of a young man in New York today. His protagonist is David Leonard, a teacher at the Columbia School of Journalism, married, with a baby son, adjusting to the surprising dramas of his new adulthood and to those of the surviving members of his father’s family. Central among the elders is David’s Uncle Sol, who, with many of his friends and relations, was for most of his life actively–indeed rambunctiously–political, and who is now, in his eighties, the vexing but endearing bane of his nephew’s life.

We follow David from his mid-twenties–as he and his parents experience what may be the most tragic moment of their lives–through two decades, through David’s courtship of the clear-headed and fetching Elizabeth, and through the early years of married and entranced fatherhood. We come to know a man in earnest pursuit of the right course, yet in possession of a wry knowledge of many of his own flaws. And in his sometimes mixed feelings about those closest to him–feelings of love and estrangement, intimacy and poignant loneliness, decency and selfishness–we see a subtle and surprisingly powerful portrayal of human complexity.

Five of the eight stories originally appeared in The New Yorker.


“The central figure in these short stories, five of which appeared in The New Yorker, is Uncle Sol, an aging but still feisty New York radical. The narrator, David Leonard, teaches journalism at Columbia, but must spend much of his time tending to his uncle, both in the city and at the Berkshires farmhouse Sol has bequeathed to David. Each tale is simple and beautifully crafted, adding layer upon layer to the story of Sol and David’s loving, but stormy, relationship. As the stories progress, David also meets his wife-to-be, Elizabeth (in the marsupial room at the Museum of Natural History), and they have a child, Charlie: the new generation comes in as the old fails. Menaker writes with humor and an obvious love for his characters. The book reads more like a memoir than fiction and the stories are, without exception, moving and large-spirited.”

Publishers Weekly

“Five of these eight stories first appeared in The New Yorker; the title story won the O. Henry Prize. Each is an episode in the life of Davey Leonard, a young journalism teacher who appeared earlier in Friends and Relations (1976), a previous book of stories. One story flashes back to a time when 18-year-old Davey took an assignment as a sort of industrial spy, making the locals suspicious. But most of the stories, set in New York City and the Berkshire Mountains, show him settling in as husband and father, monitoring the lingering death of his crotchety but beloved uncle, an aged leftist with a rich, strong-willed personality. Throughout, Davey’s strong love for the old man’s struggles comes up against generation and communication gaps and the competing needs of wife and infant son. The narratives are simple and involving, clear and touching. Recommended for collections of quality fiction.”

Library Journal


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The Worst


There are many books of joy. Of inspiration. Of passionate love and dazzling romance. Of paeans of praise for the greatness of human achievement and the wonders of nature.

There is, however, only one book like this.

One too many. If you are weary of the peaks and long for the pits of life, we can safely promise that your lowest expectations will be realized in this guide that starts at rock bottom and burrows downward from there.

Illustrated by Arnie Levin

Friends and Relations


Sometimes outrageously funny, sometimes inexpressibly sad, these twelve stories, many of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, are about young people and the problems that confront and often confound them. Daniel Menaker has chosen highly contemporary settings for his fiction—dark and isolated Manhattan apartments, summer houses, college campuses, traffic jams, skiing weekends—and in each one he presents a realistic yet wholly original picture of the way we live now…

All of these stories, sad and funny, are pervaded by an intensity of emotion and freshness of vision that will make them strongly appealing not only to admirers of traditional short fiction but also to those who are looking for something new.