Passed/Failed: An education in the life of David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker

'I was in academic nirvana'

David Remnick, 48, was The Washington Post's Moscow correspondent, and later won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. He joined The New Yorker in 1992, and has edited the magazine since 1998. Reporting: Writings from 'The New Yorker' is out now

Hillsdale, in New Jersey, where I grew up, is only 35 minutes from where my family now lives in New York, but it feels pastoral by comparison. From kindergarten to the end of high school, it was an East Coast version of what you see in the film American Graffiti: the marching bands, the football teams... Very middle class in a blue-collar American rather than an English way. Springsteenian, I would say.

I went to kindergarten in a yeshiva -a traditional Jewish school - in Patterson, then began first grade at the George G White School, across the road from our house. At 13, I went to Pascack Valley High.

Maybe because of Sputnik, instruction was stronger in the sciences than in the humanities. I was a dutiful science student and an enthusiastic arts student. I was lucky enough to find one or two intellectually sympathetic teachers. Also, I had a friend who was on my wavelength and we bought books together at church sales. Older and more cynical people might have said that we were pretentious, but my feeling is that pretension is a good thing, the progenitor of actual achievement. What scares me is apathy.

Across the river, there were these things you heard about: private schools. They were close to us in the sense that Hampstead Heath and Brixton are in the same city. If you went to a well-known private school in New York or New England, loads of you would go to Harvard or Yale. It was unusual in our [state] school, but one kid in my class went to Harvard and one to Cornell. Then, by a miracle, I got into Princeton, the "preppiest" of the Ivy League universities, sequestered from contact with the rest of the world. It was wonderful, an academic nirvana, just heaven. I studied Russian and French and majored in comparative literature.

At high school, I was the kid who did the whole school newspaper himself on the kitchen table - I wrote it myself, under different names. At Princeton, instead of supporting myself by being a waiter, I joined the Press Club and was a stringer for The Washington Post, the New Brunswick Home News and the Asbury Park Press. If a senior member of the university died, I would send out obituaries. I was reading Dante while being a junior apprentice hack.

Princeton is famous for its old-style-tweeds "eating clubs", such as the Ivy Club and the Cap & Gown, with an application process in which you have to put yourself forward, known as a "Bicker". I ran away from all that. I lived in Wilson College, named after the US president who was later president of the university. We were very anti-Brideshead, which is a snobbery of its own.

Most summers in high school, and at first in college, I had my own house-painting business. Then I got a job at Newsday, a paper in Long Island, and the following summer an internship at The Washington Post, which, five years after Watergate, was extremely glamorous.

After graduating, I worked for the paper, but then they said, "Get lost for a year". I went on a Princeton programme in which they sent you to the military dictatorship of your choice - or Japan. I taught for six months at Sophia University, Tokyo, a Jesuit college where, on the first day, I was instructed not to date the students, although they were the same age as me. I found it very lonely and must have read a book or two a day for six months.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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