The NYRB at Town Hall
Town Hall, barely half a block east of the corner in Times Square where the Naked Cowboy hangs out and takes pictures with tourists, was the site where the New York Review of Books celebrated its 50th anniversary last week, in a fashion befitting the publication. Seven of its writers read from and about their work in the NYRB. Robert Silvers, who has been editing the publication (or "paper," as he calls it) since its inception in 1963, emceed.
The hall filled with literary New Yorkers eager to pay tribute to the stalwart publication, which has covered books, culture, and politics for most or all of their adult lives and has fostered some of the most important authors of its day—though it seemed many of the oldest folks in attendance were there mostly to see the elusive Joan Didion (after whose reading several slipped out). Didion doesn't do much in the way of public appearances these days—she is frail and pushing eighty and famous enough to sell books without having to run the publicity circuit. But the crowd crossed generations—from college students on up—and spanned the subcultural spectrum, from hipsters to Upper East Siders. (Movie stars Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig, aka James Bond, were also in attendance.)
The NYRB was born during a New York typographers' strike; Silvers, who was working at Harper's at the time, was appointed along with Barbara Epstein to co-edit a paper largely inspired by a piece by the poet Elizabeth Hardwick—a 1959 essay in Harper's called "The Decline of Book Reviewing." In response, Hardwick, along with her husband Robert Lowell, Epstein's husband Jason Epstein, and publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth worked with Silvers and Barbara Epstein to launch the NYRB, which released its first issue on February 1, 1963 (and sold out the print-run of 100,000 copies). Attendees at last week's event received a facsimile of the first issue, which included a dizzying array of talent. The contents page reads like a who's who of mid-20th-century intellectual fire: Lowell, Hardwick, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, John Berryman, W. H. Auden, Nicola Chiaromonte, Robert Penn Warren, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Adrienne Rich, Norman Mailer, Nathan P. Glazer, and Gore Vidal, to name about a third of the writers—all of whom continue to influence their intellectual heirs today.
That generational span was the theme of the evening: the authors were arranged in a rough chronological order, with Didion beginning after Silvers' introduction and novelist Michael Chabon, who was born shortly after the NYRB was launched, bringing up the rear. In between them were John Banville, Mary Beard, Mark Danner, Daniel Mendelsohn, and, in the show-stopper of the night, Daryl Pinckney, who reflected on the influence of the work of James Baldwin in his own life.
Such an event pointed to the distinctive appeal of the paper Silvers has edited for 50 years. For their faithful readers, publications like the NYRB (and Books & Culture) are not merely places to find out about the newest releases; they are idiosyncratic, carefully curated publications that rely upon and develop individual writers as voices who can speak to an eclectic set of issues and concerns. Recently featured articles on the NYRB's website include a reflection on the painter Murray Urquhart by his son; a review of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick's new history of the United States by Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton; an essay on Homeland by novelist Lorrie Moore; and an exploration of the distortions of memory by Oliver Sacks. Magazines that specialize in the varied, curious, and occasionally bizarre may not have the natural target audience publishers covet, but they perform an important service to a culture's development and conservation.
Indeed, it was clear that the one consistent factor in the NYRB over the decades has been its editors: Barbara Epstein (who passed away in 2006) and Silvers, who in a 2007 Vanity Fair article was called "the most brilliant editor of a magazine ever to have worked in this country." The difficult task of an editor is to fit the content to the right author, the writer who can take a subject and turn it inside-out for the new insight that makes the reader see his world differently, to expand his mental boundaries in new directions. And in a world where the serendipitous discovery is becoming more and more difficult to make—targeted Google searches, commercials that cater to your needs, and Amazon finds tailored to your purchases all help to create, as media theorist Tom de Zengotita argues in Mediated, the flattery of representation, a personal world that merely reflects ourselves back to us—the value of an omnivorous, selective publication driven more by a selective, discerning intellect than by sales is only growing.
Today, charging for content is risky (the NYRB costs $74.95 per year for the print edition and $69.00 for online access only), something that requires a great deal of faith and probably a few patrons willing to make up the difference. But to the only question voiced at the end of the evening from the crowd—"What do you hope to do in the next fifty years?"—the cheerful Silvers replied that honestly, since the paper had started, it had been not a week-by-week, but an hour-by-hour enterprise, and he expected it would continue much that way. Nobody asked further questions: Silvers' last word was plenty.
Alissa Wilkinson edits Fieldnotes and teaches writing and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University.
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