The Jewish Republic of Letters lost a prominent and valued citizen earlier this week with the death of John Gross, 75. He edited London’s Times Literary Supplement in the 1970s before moving stateside and working as an editor and critic at the other Times; he also contributed frequently (and frequently on Jewish topics) to the New York Review of Books. He wrote one book about James Joyce, one about Shylock, and one about “Growing Up English and Jewish in London.”
“Gross relishes,” wrote Nextbook Press author Jonathan Wilson in a review of the last, “and has an eye for, detail that tells a story of lost Jewish London (‘a disused wooden gate just beginning to rot, with the legend “Evans and Son-Cowkeepers” painted on it in both English and Yiddish characters’), but this is also a memoir, entirely unsentimental, of a boy plotting escape from a Jewish world that he frequently found ‘narrow, provincial and materialistic.’”
Perusing a few of his reviews, I particularly enjoyed his take, from 1986, of a rhyming dictionary:
In other cases, however, the hand of the humorist is apparent. In some cases, only too apparent—the world could get along very nicely, I think, without such terms as ”qwertyuiophobia,” the fear of touch typing, or ”guinnessmania,” the urge to set world records. The naming of manias and phobias is in fact a delicate art, particularly when the first half of the compound doesn’t come from a Greek root (as strictly speaking it should). Some hybrids work—balletomania, for example, or Beatlemania—though I’m not quite sure whether it’s due to the sound of the word or the quality of the mania; the majority don’t.
Still, Mr. Ondrijka has managed to round up some happy inventions. I like the idea of millstreamophobia, the fear of barbershop quartets; I can recognize the condition of shushophobia, the fear of librarians. And after a few minutes with Ondrijka and Espy, it’s hard not to start joining in the game. Why not beepophobia, for example—a reluctance to leave messages on answering machines—or clausophobia, an aversion to causes célèbres? Rambomania—the word, that is, not the state of mind—has something to be said for it. (See also the related term Cobraphilia, which sounds even more appropriate.) And if the labeling of fresh phobias eventually becomes unnerving, we can at least comfort ourselves with the thought that our only real problem, as Franklin Roosevelt nearly said, is phobophobia.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.