Robert B. Silvers: enjoyed the pleasures of editing

World | 21 Mar 2017 12:00 pm

The New York Review of Books edited by Robert B. Silvers, was conceived in late 1962, in the midst of a newspaper strike in New York, when poet Robert Lowell and his wife, the author and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, met at the Upper West Side apartment of Barbara and Jason Epstein, a publishing executive. They shared an old lament _ the dreadfulness of book reviews _ and saw a chance to change it. 

Lowell secured a loan of US$4,000 and Silvers, with Harper's at the time, was brought in as co-editor. The first issue of the Review came out in 1963, with the declaration that no time would be wasted on books "trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or call attention to a fraud.'' Norman Mailer, William Styron and others quickly agreed to write for the new publication though they initially weren't paid.

Widely appreciated and honored, the Review has published classic essays by Mailer, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal, among others, and even managed to turn a profit. "The Fifty Year Argument,'' a documentary co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, came out in 2014. Two years earlier, Silvers received a National Humanities Medal and was praised as "a bringer of culture, a champion of literature, a uniquely talented matchmaker of books and reviewers.'' 

The NYRB was not above being criticized, with some calling it elitist, insular and prone to running far more work by men than by women. Tom Wolfe mocked it as "the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic,'' while Saul Bellow labeled it the New York Review of each other's books. The Review itself was quite capable of attack, whether it was Noam Chomsky and I.F. Stone taking on the Vietnam War, Mailer sticking it to Mary McCarthy's "The Group'' or McCarthy giving the ax to David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest.'' The magazine also was an early opponent of the Iraq War and a frequent critic of Donald Trump. 

In 2012, accepting an honorary award from the National Book Critics Circle, Silvers said that while the Review avoided editorials, its stance from the beginning was "to be skeptical of state power and to take the side of people who had suffered from it.'' State power, in turn, suspected the Review. An FBI report from the 1960s cited Silvers for using "individuals with 'leftist tendencies' to review books dealing with security matters and the U.S. government.'' 

The Review never rested. For decades, Silvers and Barbara Epstein presided lovingly over every word and punctuation mark, every cover and every assignment, with the imposing, Anglicized Silvers (Wolfe once wrote that Silvers' accent "arrived mysteriously one day in a box from London'') specializing in politics and history and science, and the short, outgoing Epstein in fiction and the arts. (Epstein and Silvers were presented an honorary National Book Award in 2006.) 

Silvers was often at work at nights on holidays, surrounded by assistants at the Review's book-mobbed offices. One writer, Timothy Garton Ash, told of being called at home on Christmas Day because the editor had spotted a dangling modifier in his story. Daniel Mendelsohn would remember being on a ship on the Aegean Sea when he was urgently summoned to the telephone. Convinced a close relative had died, Mendelsohn warily picked up the receiver and heard Silvers' enthusiastic voice on the other end, suggesting that a semicolon be changed to a period. 

A businessman's son, Silvers was born in Mineola, New York, and grew up on a farm in Huntington.

In his 2012 speech at the book critics ceremony, he said among the pleasures of editing was the "anticipation,'' knowing that he was going to encounter something "-AP

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