STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tina Brown is with us once again. She is the editor of The Daily Beast and of Newsweek, and a regular guest on this program. She comes by for a feature we call Word of Mouth. We talk about what she's been reading, learn about it. Hi Tina.

Ms. TINA BROWN (Editor, The Daily Beat, Newsweek): Hi, Steve, how are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing great. It's great to talk with you. I think we last spoke right before the royal wedding. So you must have had a nice time.

Ms. BROWN: We did. I mean it was really an incredibly glorious day. I think it was one of the most fun things I've done recently.

INSKEEP: And yet you managed to work in a little bit of reading since then. You've sent us some readings that will take us all the way through life here, from the beginning to the end. And let's begin at the beginning. There's a book called "The Anti-Romantic Child." The author is Priscilla Gilman.

Ms. BROWN: Indeed, it's really a wonderful memoir by the mother of a child who turned out to be very, very different from the child that she'd always dreamed of. Priscilla Gilman is an academic. She was teaching classes on Wordsworth, and she'd always had this fantasy, as all mothers do, of the kind of child that she would have who would be kind of absolutely sort of like herself, and very much a child she would recognize and so on.

But it turns out that her child was different. Her son had something called hyperlexia which is on the spectrum of autism and Asperger's. And he talks and talks and talks in this way that's very kind of stilted and tends to echo what he's heard. For instance, if you say to him, are you thirsty? He might echo back, are you thirsty, as opposed to I am thirty.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

Ms. BROWN: So there were issues like that, issues of eye contact, issues of not really being able to, it seems, understand and communicate exactly as other kids do in the way that things are put to him and so on.

INSKEEP: Could I just mention, it's excruciating to read her account - and you excerpt some of it in Newsweek here her account of taking this two and a half year old to school for a kind of examination or interview to get into the school. And even though the kid is sitting there, spelling out words at age two and a half with, like, letters in front of him - Benjamin, flapjack, Friday, he can spell - the teachers look at this kid and say that he's not behaving properly and they deliver the mother the crushing news there's something wrong with your child.

Ms. BROWN: Well, that's exactly right and I think one of the most pointed things in the book is when she says one of the most painful things about these discoveries was that they made me feel that all of the things I consider unique and special about Benji were instead uncontrollable manifestations of a disorder.

He wasn't unusual. He was typical, ordinary, a classic case. He didn't have an interesting mind, he had faulty wiring. This was devastating to her, because all these special things about him she thought were so special were in fact the symptoms of this disorder, hyperlexia.

So the book really is about how she copes with this news and alters her understanding of what being a mother is going to be, while at the same time, loving her child so much and understanding how she must now approach everything about him differently.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us an article from a California literary review called "The Threepenny Review." The title is on being an only child. The author is Geoff Dyer.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah, this is a wonderful piece. It's about growing up as an only child in Britain with parents who adored him, actually, but who were very poor, in fact, although he didn't see them as poor at the time. Everything about them they did was about economizing. And he's very funny about it, actually. I mean they never had anything that wasn't kind of handmade, like, you know, he says clothes for my action man, my mom would make them. A Subbuteo soccer pitch, she bought a piece of green base and painted on the lines. We always bought the cheapest versions of things. We hardly ever went on holiday, all of this kind of a litany of things about his childhood.

He kind of accepted at the time, but he didn't really accept, and what became for him the abiding memory of his childhood, was the long yawning afternoons when there was absolutely nothing to do. Nothing. He talks about how in those days afternoons were so long. He played Monopoly with himself. He always was with himself.

And yet, in some ways, of course, it also meant having to sit there all day long and come up with something to amuse himself in the end defined kind of the way he's living today, which is as a writer. He sits there all day at his computer trying to come up with something to amuse himself.

But he also talks very amusingly about the reaction, as he got older, to that childhood. He said at a certain point he became a splurger and always had more than one chocolate bar.

And it's touching at the end too, because he - in the end, he goes to Oxford, he becomes of course brilliant because he sat there reading all the time, and he realizes that he and his parents have got to find some way to connect, because being an only child meant there was no sister or brother who could actually somehow help to bind this strange little threesome together. He somehow tried to reach out to his parents and make them understand a different world that he'd entered now, away from this world of absolutely reduced economy and so on. And there's a very touching moment when he surprises his mother who was a dinner lady in a school. And they embrace and hug each other, and he tries to communicate a sense that there is a world beyond the world that they have.

INSKEEP: So we start at the beginning of life, and now we come to an article in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens, who many people will know as a noted writer who's been suffering from cancer. What is he writing about now?

Ms. BROWN: Well, this is an incredibly moving piece. Chris Hitchens is a very old friend of mine for the last, you know, 35, 40 years, really. And he talks about how having cancer of the throat has meant that, of course, he now has had an attack on his vocal chords which has, of course, taken away his voice. And Christopher Hitchens's voice was always one of his greatest gifts, you know. He speaks had a marvelously melodic and resonant voice that he used, of course, to great effect. And of course, for him to lose this voice is absolutely a traumatic thing for him.

But he also writes about how a voice is so important to a writer, literally. He says writers are always told they need to find their voice, but he himself as a writer was told once by a colleague, Simon Hoggart, that he ought to write more the way he talks. And I understand that actually, because I do remember Christopher writing in a somewhat different way when he was younger and how he actually genuinely did find his voice and because a very different kind of a literary journalist than he was in the early part of his career.

So for him to lose that voice now, as he battles with cancer, you know, has been absolutely a traumatic thing. He says deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence or the amputation of a part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I was my voice.

INSKEEP: Can I mention before he lost his voice, he gave a number of interviews to "60 Minutes" on CBS. They were broadcast not so long ago and he indicated in those interviews his greatest fear was losing the ability to write, that perhaps he would not have the energy or the focus, that he would have nothing more to say. At least you can think, from the evidence of this Vanity Fair article, that he's still writing and writing compellingly.

Ms. BROWN: Well, I think he's become more and more compelling as a writer, actually. And the beautiful essay that he writes here about his voice is really one of the great things that he's written. And there's doubt that not being able to speak probably has taken him further into himself to write a kind of emotionally pure kind of a writing that he really, in the past, might not have wanted to do. So it's made him a very personal writer, in a way, which I would hardly say is a consolation, because it isn't. But it is interesting how his prose has changed as the illness has taken hold.

INSKEEP: The feature is called Word of Mouth. We hear from Tina Brown of the Daily Beast and Newsweek. Tina, thanks as always.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.