A Critic Had a Day to Read and Review Prince Harry’s Memoir

From a New York Times Insider column by Alexandra Jacobs about Prince Harry’s Memoir:

The wait for an advance copy of “Spare,” the memoir for which Prince Harry reportedly received an advance of at least $20 million, felt longer than that of his father’s for the British throne.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But the experience did remind me of a “Seinfeld” episode wherein the character Elaine Benes, stuck with her pants down in a public restroom without toilet paper, is outraged that the stranger in the adjacent stall “can’t spare a square.”

“What’s the matter?” I more than once wanted to yell at Random House, the book’s publisher. “You can’t spare a ‘Spare’?”

The editor of The New York Times Book Review, Gilbert Cruz, and his deputy editor, Tina Jordan, had been negotiating for weeks to secure a copy for me before the memoir’s official “pub date,” as it’s known in the trade, of Jan. 10. How soon they couldn’t tell me.

News outlets are often given early looks at books, movies, studies and official reports before their release, on the condition that we will not publish articles about them until a certain time. The Times respects these rules, known as embargoes, unless another news organization breaks them. But it doesn’t sign nondisclosure agreements, and Random House knew that, so it would have to rely on our word that we wouldn’t leak details or lodge criticisms before the book arrived on store shelves. This is a familiar dance, usually a polite minuet, but with a book as high-stakes as this one, it becomes more of a jitterbug.

British news organizations were going nuts in the days leading to the release of “Spare,” as it had accidentally gone on sale early in Spain. I tried to avoid all the coverage, worried it would cloud my judgment and make me sick of the book before I’d even read it.

Instead, I binge-watched “Harry & Meghan,” the couple’s synergistic Netflix series. I also looked up copies of “A King’s Story,” released in 1951 by Harry’s great-great-uncle Edward, the Duke of Windsor, who had even more consequentially defected from the Firm, as the royal family is sometimes known, and of “The Heart Has Its Reasons,” a 1956 memoir by his wife, the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson. She, like Meghan, was a divorced American. I marveled at their comparative (I was sure) decorum.

Truthfully, I had volunteered for this assignment with some trepidation. My mother is English by birth, and I grew up paying cursory attention to the royal family during summer visits to London. But despite diligent viewing of “The Crown,” and a few other reviews of related literature, I am by no means a royal superfan. However, when I found out Harry had worked with the ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer, the author of the terrific memoir “The Tender Bar” and Andre Agassi’s ghostwriter, my anticipation mounted.

So where was the damn book? Though reviewers often now read new releases as PDFs, Random House wouldn’t email one, for the obvious reason: It’s much easier to copy, paste and distribute electronic text. (Also, it’s much more royal to sit in one’s library turning a book’s paper pages.)

The days waiting for the word on when I’d receive a copy looked something like this:

Dec. 28: I logged onto Slack to find a note from Tina. “You WILL have it early — but whether that’s two days early or five days or seven, I can’t say just yet.” She had heard that parts of the book were “incendiary,” which the coming days would certainly bear out.

Jan. 2: “Should have a definitive answer on when I can get you ‘Spare’ tomorrow,” Tina wrote. “Remind me your address?” I described my precise coordinates in Brooklyn — ahem, Kings County — adding my phone number in case they sent a courier.

Jan. 3: Silence. I lounged in silk pajamas, sipped tea and tried to concentrate on other works of literature.

Jan. 4: Me to T (in their Netflix documentary, Meghan reveals that she calls her spouse H, and the habit is catching): “Any update on dear Harry?”

T to A: “I wish. We may have to discuss worst-case scenarios!”

I offered to read the book under cloak and dagger in Random House’s office.

No dice.

Later in the day: T: “OK. You’re gonna get this Friday. Details to come.”

A: “Great. Weekend is clear for this!”

But on Friday, the date was switched to Monday, Jan. 9 — one day before the book’s release. I was actually a bit relieved, as I had expensive tickets to “The Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, for Saturday night. But I was also alarmed. Usually I have about a week, or at least a couple of days, to read and reflect on a book. How quickly was I going to be expected to turn my review around?

Jan. 9: At 9 a.m., T and I met at The Times’s headquarters at 620 Eighth Avenue. She had just picked up two copies of “Spare” at Random House and handed me one. I secured a free “long espresso” from the office coffee machine and went into a conference room papered with pictures by the cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. (He drew in a way I wish I could write.) Interested colleagues passed by and barged in to gossip. Everyone had an opinion on Harry.

I finished reading around 3:30 p.m., texted my husband that I wouldn’t be home for dinner, got some pheasant … I mean, turkey jerky from The Times’s grab-and-go cafe, and began to write, stopping only for a pep talk from my colleague John Koblin, an old hand at turning around copy fast. My regular editor, Scott Heller, volunteered to stay up and read my draft before bedtime.

The next morning, in the middle of addressing Scott’s feedback and furiously checking facts so that we could publish the review as quickly as possible, we discovered we’d used the same starting word that morning for Wordle:

SPARE.

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.”

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