Russell Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Times columnist, died on Tuesday night at his home in Leesburg, Va. The Times’s obituary, which called Baker “one of the best-known newspaper humorists of his time,” noted that his “whimsical, irreverent ‘Observer’ column appeared in The New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers for 36 years and turned a backwoods-born Virginian into one of America’s most celebrated writers.” If you’ve never read any of his 15 books — or if you’d like to rediscover some old favorites — these six books are a fine way to start.
[Click here to read The Times’s obituary of Russell Baker.]
“Have a nice day has replaced ‘This is a stickup’ as the most frequently spoken four-word sentence in the American language.”
So This Is Depravity
Baker’s collection of columns from 1973 to 1980 is simply this: “observations on the foibles and peccadilloes of the human race.” In 1979, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for this “good-humored commentary.”
“Writing a book is quite different from telling amusing anecdotes over the second bottle of Bordeaux, as I discovered.”
Baker’s memoir, published in 1982, would go on to win the 1983 Pulitzer for biography. In the Times’s review, Richard Lingeman called the book “touching and funny, a hopeless muddle of sadness and laughter that bears a suspicious resemblance to real life.” A year later, Edwin McDowell wrote a column about the book’s success.
Read the review
“My mother, dead now to this world but still roaming free in my mind, wakes me some mornings before daybreak. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a quitter.’”
The Good Times
In the paper’s 1989 review of “The Good Times,” a sequel to “Growing Up,” Ward Just wrote, “This book is a salute to the 40s, 50s and early 60s, the American epoch, the prose now racing with the clamor of a jazz band, now soft as an oboe. There is also a welcome whisper of misanthropy, indispensable equipment for the nonconforming serious humorist.” And in a “Books of the Times” column, Frank Conroy called “The Good Times” splendid, adding that “it would certainly make life easier for book reviewers if Russell Baker could manage to write something bad once in a while.”
“Except for computer manuals and high school operetta, there is nothing more deadening than an uninterrupted diet of humor.”
Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor
In 1994, Christopher Buckley reviewed “Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor,” writing of the anthology, “People are dying in Bosnia. Let’s enjoy all the laughter we can.”
Read the review
“‘You have to put his feet on the ends of his arms instead of putting them on the end of his legs, Lazlo,’ Doctor Frankenstein said.”
The Upside-Down Man
In 1977, Marvin Kitman reviewed “The Upside-Down Man,” a children’s book in which Baker riffed on the legend of Frankenstein. “I wish I had written it, and he were reviewing it, praising it to the rafters of the auditorium, recommending it to every parent and librarian,” Kitman wrote.
Read the review
“Anticipating that most poetry will be worse than carrying heavy luggage through O’Hare Airport, the public, to its loss, reads very little of it.”
The Norton Book of Light Verse
In 1986, The Times ran an excerpt from Baker’s introduction to “The Norton Book of Light Verse,” a collection he edited for Norton.
Read the excerpt