NYT Bestselling Author Recalls Carman and Koronet

Bob Kolker '91
Robert Kolker ’91 is the New York Times bestselling nonfiction author of Lost Girls (2013), named one of the Times’s “100 Notable Books” and one of Slate’s best nonfiction books of the quarter century; and Hidden Valley Road (2020), an instant #1 New York Times best-seller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club that was named a Top Ten Book of the Year by the Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and People. Kolker is a National Magazine Award finalist whose journalism has appeared in New York magazine; The New York Times Magazine; Bloomberg Businessweek; Wired; O, the Oprah Magazine and The Marshall Project. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.


What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was one of a few hundred incoming first-year students who had been the editor-in-chief of their high school newspaper, so it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was not exactly special. After that, I was terrified. I remember walking around campus by myself at night in those first few months, looking around at the architecture and wondering if I really was qualified to be there. That slowly changed once I found myself dialing into what I was actually being taught in those Core classes; I remained anxious, but at least all that stuff was interesting.

I felt off-key socially in those first months, a little lonely, before making close friends. I remember just before winter break, my suitemate gave me his home number in case I wanted to be in touch over break, and I was shocked (“Wait, you like me?”). After that, I chilled out a little. But one thing I never second-guessed during that early period of uncertainty was New York City. I remember now and then someone would complain about having nothing to do that night, and then whoever was around them would start laughing. I mean, just a few steps away, there was everything to do.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I was on the eighth floor of Carman Hall. On our floor, it seemed as if someone from Housing or Admissions was having fun at our expense, because they placed me with another Bob and there were two guys named Chris rooming together down the hall. My roommate and I had very little in common aside from our first names, but we got along surprisingly well. And as a floor, I remember nothing but cheer, chiefly in the TV common room, and also on nightly 1:00 a.m. pizza runs (Koronet, not Pizza Town, though there was sometimes some debate over that). Seriously, I’m smiling as I write this because I’m still in touch with so many great people from my floor. I was just Zooming with three them a few months ago, and I was on Facebook with several more recently. It’s a little like we haven’t left.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

I have an early memory from “Logic & Rhetoric,” the first-semester composition requirement, when some student was furious about gender-neutral language and was constantly berating our instructor (who was female) about it. I kept waiting for her to completely lose it with him, but she realized before I did that he was baiting her and she decided not to escalate. Instead she defused what he said calmly, each and every time, which made it less and less possible for him to grandstand. I remember feeling as if I was witnessing some brilliant jiu-jitsu.

But my favorite Core class was CC. I have heard it said that a weakness of the Core was how it meant you were often taught by grad students, but I never saw that as a problem. In this case, the grad student instructor was really devoted to having meaningful class discussions, and she worked tirelessly to get us to think more deeply about what we were reading, and to apply it to our thinking about the world. Some of the things she was talking about, the debates between philosophies, I still see in the news today.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I have my little personal collection of favorites, many of which aren’t around anymore (the Marlin, the Cathedral bar, Augie’s, Columbia Bagels, River Hall). On campus, I loved finding a cubby in the Law Library for some serious quiet. My favorite place of all was the old home of the Columbia Daily Spectator on Amsterdam Avenue, where I spent most of my time. I ended up editing the weekly arts and entertainment supplement and serving on the managing board. Spec was where I met my wife, Kirsten Danis ’92, and many of my closest friends (I see now that it essentially was a coed fraternity, though I’m not sure I would have appreciated being told that at the time), and where I gained a little confidence as a writer, so I feel pretty shaped by the place. This is weird: A few years ago I stopped by the paper’s current home and the second I walked in, I was overwhelmed by the scent of old newsprint combined with cigarette smoke. They’d brought all the bound volumes from the old place, so the new place and the old place smelled exactly the same.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I majored in history, which I loved, but at the end, I counted up my credits and realized I was inches away from earning a concentration in English. If I could do it over, I’d try for a double major. I guess that’s a pretty common regret about a place like Columbia — that you didn’t take advantage of every single thing it has to offer while you were there. It really is like a feast.

[Editor’s note: Kolker will be one of three judges for CCT’s upcoming Personal Essay contest; see the Winter 2020–21 issue for details!]