Galley Girl: Eric Weiner’s ‘Ikea God’ and a Pack of Publishing Old-Timers

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Right: Chuck Berman

Publishing reporter Andrea Sachs writes about the book industry here every weekend.

Growing up, Eric Weiner was hardly a soldier in the army of the Lord. He describes his family as “gastronomical Jews” (think bagels, lox and latkes) who attended synagogue one day a year, on Yom Kippur. But a few years ago, Weiner found himself face to face with the issue of faith. During a distressing trip to the emergency room (a false alarm), a concerned nurse asked him, “Have you found your God yet?” The jarring inquiry continued to resonate. “The ER nurse had laid down the gauntlet, asking me a question that demanded a serious answer and not, as is my wont, a clever rejoinder, a joke,” Weiner writes in his smart new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine (Twelve).

Weiner, a self-described “Confusionist,” consequently went on an intense spiritual expedition, traveling around the world and trying on various religions like different suits. He meditated with Tibetan lamas and whirled with Turkish Sufi dervishes, studied Kabbalah in Israel, worked alongside friars at a Franciscan homeless shelter in the South Bronx and hung out with Wiccan witches in Seattle.

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Weiner aligns himself with the growing number of people who float between faiths. He cites a survey that found one in three Americans change their religious affiliations during their lifetime. “We are a spiritually promiscuous nation,” he writes. “We are a people that worships choice. Choice is freedom. Choice is good. If we can choose our elected leaders, our calling plan, our toothpaste, why not our God?” His book, both a travelogue and a searching personal inventory, chronicles his hunt. Sometimes, his project feels gimmicky: was he really going to join the Raëlians, the largest UFO-based religion? But his sophisticated wit and wordplay yield an engaging tale at each stop.

When we spoke with Weiner, we asked him, given all he had gone through, if he was still searching? “Yes,” he said. “There’s no Hollywood ending, where I go off into the sunset with the god of my dreams. The answer is, not yet.” Still, he credits his try-outs with having shaped his present faith. “I have found lots of wisdom, and I’ve incorporated a lot of what I’ve learned from these religions into my life” says Weiner. “But I haven’t fully converted to one. I’d like to think that what I’m trying to come up with is a kind of IKEA God, some assembly required. You take the best of each religion but put it on top of a foundation.”

Dinosaurs Who Lunch

In the professional world, where admissions of aging are much to be avoided, it is rare to hear someone declare his or her employment longevity, much less 31 people at the same time. But geezerhood was the name of the game at the so-called Dinosaur Holiday Lunch, held in midtown this week at Connolly’s Pub and Restaurant. The guests: distinguished book publicists, a few of whose work days span back to the 1950s — some retired, some part-time emeriti, some still working. “We have shared history in an amazing industry,” declared Esther Margolis, one of the co-hosts and longtime president of Newmarket Books, just acquired by HarperCollins. Her co-host was Manhattan literary agent and former Viking publicity director Rich Barber.

The event began as an offshoot of the Publishers Publicity Association, but outgrew that in time. “As the years go on, the group gets larger and larger,” noted Jill Danzig of Danzig Communications. “There’s a desire to reconnect with the people we started with back in the day when people actually held books in their hands.” Over New York sirloins and filets of sole, attendees caught up with old friends and schmoozed about the volcanic changes that publishing is undergoing as a result of the digital revolution. “I’ve been thinking of publishing as a dodo bird,” said Gail Rentsch, who spent 24 years at Rentsch Associates, the book publicity firm that she founded, before retiring in 2006. Her next stop, in 2008, was writing Smart Women Don’t Retire — They Break Free: From Working Full-Time to Living Full-Time. Different degrees of dinosaurdom were represented: the happily retired, with talk of the AARP and grandchildren, as well as victims of the declining economy.

Then there were the adamantly not retired. Dynamo Jane Friedman, former chief executive of HarperCollins, was blazing with passion about her new enterprise, Open Road Integrated Media. Friedman has gone the whole nine yards digitally; the company has been publishing e-books since 2009 and has published some 150 authors, new and backlist. The day prior, Financial Times had run an admiring story about Friedman and her forward-looking career, referring to her as the “author of her own destiny.” Friedman, who famously began in publicity and spent 40 years in traditional publishing, says of her chosen path, “I saw the future. I had no interest in retiring”

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