Robert Silvers was our greatest editor

Reading the New York Review of Books, Paris, 2005, photo by Sean Rocha

For years I had the unusual experience of infrequent but recurring bouts of worry regarding the health of a man I never met: Robert Silvers, the polymath editor and co-founder of the New York Review of Books, who, by all accounts, was curious about almost every area of intellectual endeavor and had a singular ability to find just the right person I, as a reader, wanted to hear reviewing a book on a particular subject.
Robert Silvers died this week, age 87, and I am almost embarrassed by the scale of the sense of loss I feel. It is entirely aspirational to post this under “Latest Work” because I never wrote for the New York Review of Books. But there is no publication in America closer to the work that I do, and none that I read so thoroughly or that has done more to inform my view of the world. It can be a daunting publication to behold: broadsheet-sized, with each page a forbidding wall of text occasionally enlivened by a David Levine cartoon or Dominique Nabokov photograph. It covers a breathtaking range of topics, in depth, with no concessions made to the supposed short attention spans of the young. Indeed, though Silvers was proud that the Review was profitable it has always seemed to me about as un-commercial a venture as can be imagined. The staff is small — voracious geniuses all, I have no doubt — and they published on such an irregular schedule that it was always a surprise when a new issue arrived in my mailbox, like an unexpected gift. When I would call to renew my subscription a gentle grandmotherly voice would slowly walk me through the not at all automated steps while I imagined her feeding the information into an old punchcard computer to register my renewal.
I was continually amazed by Silvers’s gift in choosing reviewers. He was periodically accused of being too fond of British contributors but I think that was a misplaced charge. For people who don’t read the Review but judge from the title that it might be a kind of Siskel and Ebert thumbs up/thumbs down for new books — something like the New York Times Book Review, with which it is often confused — it wouldn’t seem so important to find the absolute perfect reviewer; most any famous writer would do. But the New York Review of Books is nothing like that: it is more like watching two giants in the field wrestle with a subject, the subject generally being brought to attention by a new book by one of them. Nowhere is this more evident than the letters page where, if you were lucky, an author previously reviewed would object to some technical point by the reviewer — witness the exchange between Edward Jay Epstein and Charlie Savage about Edward Snowden in the most recent issues — and a cage match of arcane knowledge would follow that was, alone, enough to redeem our shallow, celebrity-obsessed contemporary culture.
The Review is, to me, the most essential publication in America but I worry for its future as I did for Bob Silvers’s health. Rumor has it that no successor was designated even though at Silvers’s advanced age many might have anticipated this day would come. In this I reminded of my experience in the late-1990s working briefly for another review, the Paris Review, where Silvers had also once been an editor long ago. George Plimpton was then in the Silvers role: no longer young but still indispensable and the publication seemed to owe so much to his personal character that it was hard to conceive of it surviving him yet, also, it was hard to conceive of a literary New York without the Paris Review in it. The Paris Review continues on to this day, which is a comfort, but I have other reasons to fear for the New York Review of Books. Somewhat at odds with the general tenor of the publication, it runs Personals ads on the back pages. Not many post there: maybe five an issue. But the heart does break a bit to read of the housebound woman seeking a gentleman age 75+ for companionship and good conversation. You want her to find her late true love but, also, you want the Review to find a younger audience — or perhaps, reversing that, you want the younger audience to discover how wonderful the Review is — so it can remain a vital publication for another 50 years. My life cannot go on without it.

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