Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: The World of Herb Caen

Herb Caen was San Francisco's legendary newspaper columnist. Barnaby Conrad describes Caen's prodigious work product in his introduction to The World of Herb Caen: San Francisco 1938 – 1997:
For almost six decades staring on July 5, 1938 – and except for yearly vacations and a 3 ½-year stint in the Army Air Force during World War II – Herb's column appeared, appeared, sparkling and infallible, to entertain and enlighten San Franciscans half a dozen times each and every week. In a typical year, he dropped 6,768 names, got 45,000 letters, 24,000 phone calls. If laid end to end, his columns would stretch 5.6 miles, from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge. . . . It is an astounding and unduplicated feat, by far the longest-running newspaper column in the country.
Conrad – an author, restaurateur, and longtime friend of Caen's – compiled samples of Caen's columns, snippets from dozens of others, photos, and anecdotes about San Francisco's favorite newspaper man. The book is pure delight for Caen fans or any lover of "Baghdad by the Bay."

One of the best parts is seeing collected many of the "Herbisms" Caen invented, many of which have become common lingo in and out of San Francisco. He coined "beatnik," "glitterati," and "Berserkeley," for example. And all San Franciscans recognize "The Washbag" (Washington Square Bar & Grill) and "Da Mayor" (Willie Brown), among others. Some of Caen's clever word plays haven't stuck, but are still entertaining, like "the car-strangled spanner" for the Bay Bridge or "Skid Rogues" for the panhandlers on Market Street.

The only drawback to the book is that it is too short at only 126 (oversized) pages, many crammed with photographs of Caen, celebrities, and city scenes. Perhaps if it had been organized by decade instead of its four thematic chapters, it could have included more from Caen's own columns. As it is, it is funny and charming and leaves the reader wanting to spend more time in Herb Caen's world.


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This counts as one of my books for the Mt. TBR and Off the Shelf challenges.

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