In Love With Language: David Remnick at the Nourse Theater

For over thirty years, San Francisco’s brain has been expanded by events organized by City Arts & Lectures. If you miss the event or are low on ticket funds, you can hear a radio replay of the event later. The free radio programming is enjoyable, but there’s something special about sitting in a plush seat in the gorgeously restored Nourse Theater watching late patrons whisper apologies as they arrive in waves, stumbling over each other in the dark. It’s also fun to hear departing patrons muttering praise or denouncement.

Formerly held in the Herbst Theater a few blocks away, City Arts organized fundraising to restore the 1920s Nourse Theater to its original glory. “This was a high school theater?” the woman beside me inquired. Surprisingly, this Beaux-Arts theater was originally built to stage high school performances. Later used as a stage for concerts, poetry readings, and experimental theater, the Nourse fell into disuse after it was transformed to serve as the courtroom for an epic 1980s asbestos exposure case. It morphed into a storage facility for the school system for decades before City Arts began restoration.

After ogling the interior, the lights dimmed and we sat entranced by the wit and wisdom of David Remnick in conversation with Steven Winn. One of Winn’s first questions was how Remnick manages to be the editor of the New Yorker and still write books (“Most people think you’re a superman. I’m guessing that editing the New Yorker isn’t hard work.”) Remnick deflected his superman image by claiming that it was possible to accomplish by working late and taking no vacations. Winn asked how Remnick ended up as editor, since he self-claimed to not be qualified. Remnick’s explanation ended with a quote from someone he met at that time who said, “I’m from Nebraska and the New Yorker was all we had. Don’t fuck it up.”

An elegant wordsmith both in writing and speaking, Remnick kept tossing out choice bits, describing the labor of having to do research before you write anything as “the idiotic work of collecting berries for your pie.” He mentioned the “exquisite agony and pleasure” of writing and suggests everyone read John McPhee’s advice on writing that the magazine has published this year. I forgave Remnick his ill-advised Woolf-slam-smirk that “even boys need a room of their own” because he went on to exhort us to dive into things that matter, that “we’re on earth to go deep.” He also gave a poignant answer to the ridiculous question “What would you say to inspire kids today to achieve their dreams?” by responding that to teach kids the reading habit is the best thing you can do for them. “There is no deeper pleasure than reading.... Lazy leisurely reading of extended periods... Language is the best thing we’ve invented.”

On the language front, he goes on a rant about cell phone texting, (paraphrased) “What if texting was invented in the 1960s and the telephone was invented later? ‘Oh, I can hear the intonation of your voice, the sounds of people making dinner in the background! This is a marvelous invention!’ Meanwhile, texting is ‘k,k, ugh.’”

The David Remnick conversation was the second event in the Now Appearing at the Nourse series, with Michael Lewis kicking it off a few weeks ago. Next up is Fran Lebowitz, then Paul Farmer, and Adam Savage with John Hodgman. Later guests include Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, David Simon and David Chang. With this all-star lineup, you can’t go wrong. See you at the Nourse!

FIVE THôT columnist Laura Zander is a book nerd on a perpetual quest to satiate her curiosity and observe the magic of juxtapositions. A veteran of the tech world, she's widely acknowledged as a product, marketing, and operations guru. You can read her other articles on FIVE THôT here, and follow her reading life at or @lz 

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