At 50, ‘New York Review of Books’ celebrates the longevity of a magazine, and a mission

A facsimile of the first edition of 'The New York Review of Books.' (Click here to enlarge.)
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The first issue of The New York Review of Books came off the presses, famously, in February 1963, during the third month of a printers’ strike that had shut down seven New York City newspapers, including The New York Times and its formidable book-review section.

It's a story that says as much about how different the New York literary scene was 50 years ago. That the demand for high-minded literary discourse had reached such a level, and that publishing houses were so eager to have a place to buy advertising for new books that they completely covered the (out-of-state) printing costs.

But the Review, which found its niche almost immediately, has been largely immune to the shifts in the business of cultural production and criticism, enduring for five decades and retaining its spot as the elite platform for probing, diverse cultural criticism and argument, right to the present day.

At Town Hall last night, the crowd that filed in to help celebrate the 50th anniversary were handed facsimile reprints of that first issue. The tidy paper time capsule, which cost 25 cents in 1963, featured book reviews by W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, William Styron, and Robert Lowell, as well as then-new poems by John Berryman and Robert Penn Warren. Even the ads were there: one full-page ad from Random House touted new collections by John O’Hara and Truman Capote.

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“We asked some of the writers we admired most in the world to write reviews in three weeks, for no money, to show what a book review might be,” Bob Silvers, the Review's long-time editor told the crowd in his opening remarks. “And just as Jason had said, the publishers took the ads to pay for it, the first issue sold out, and nearly one thousand people wrote in asking us to go on, and that was the beginning of The New York Review of Books.”

The event last night was the beginning of a yearlong celebration of the Review, which will include a series of remembrances online and a number of live events. Last night's featured a lineup of prominent contributors to the Review reading selections from their work on art, politics, criminal justice, history, and of course literature and criticism, with a smattering of remembrances. Their audience was of the well-kept literary variety: lots of gentlemen in stylish eyeglasses and indoor scarves and ladies in Anna Wintourish bobs.

The master of ceremonies could have been none other than Silvers, who has been the editor of the Review for all thousand-plus issues (his co-editor, Barbara Epstein, died in 2006). Silvers opened up the event with a story about how Barbara’s husband, book editor Jason Epstein, lured him away from Harper’s to start the Review. Both had admired a groundbreaking essay that Elizabeth Hardwick had written in Harper’s several years earlier, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” and were inspired by it to seize the opportunity presented by the strike to try to push the form further. And both were pleasantly surprised by the project’s quick success.

Silvers smiled as he read an excerpt from the editor’s note of issue one, which he noted was the only editorial the magazine ever ran, then or since:

“This issue of The New York Review does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud.”

And why run another? There has never been a need for the Review to update what would today be called its "content strategy." It simply persists.

Joan Didion was the first contributor to read. Slight and dignified as always, she walked slowly, with assistance, to the stage. She read an excerpt of what Silvers said was the longest piece the Review had ever published, a 17,000-word critical reflection of race, gender, and crime in New York, centered around the conviction of the men now known as “The Central Park Five” for the rape of a jogger in the park. The piece, which received angry letters at the time of its publication in 1991, was largely vindicated after the convictions were eventually, famously, vacated.

Political journalist Mark Danner, who joined the Review right out of college in 1981, has been writing for it, periodically, ever since. Before reading some excerpts of his writing on the past two presidential campaigns, he described what it was like to work in the cramped Review office, where he worked full-time in the early 1980s:

“I actually began to think of it as a kind of Alpine landscape, in which all of the mountain ridges and passes were made of books,” said Danner. “And these books, every hour and a half or so, would collapse, with a thundering roar, and one of my main jobs was to pick those books up. Bob would lurk behind piles of them, smoke would rise from his cigarillo, and occasionally a piece of paper would be flung over these piles of books with his very distinctive pencil editing… which is the way I learned how to edit, and how I learned to write.”

Cambridge professor Mary Beard admitted that she had not been writing for the Review long enough to properly reflect back on her own work for the magazine, so she examined the work that came before hers—in particular, the Review’s ongoing conversation with the ancients. Conducting a survey of the past 50 years of issues, by word-searching through the online archives, she came away impressed. She found that Julius Caesar, Virgil, Augustus, Ovid, have appeared, on average, more than once an issue in the Review’s fifty years.

The audience loved Darryl Pinckney’s reading, a heartfelt essay tracing his long and rocky relationship with the works of James Baldwin. (A review of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time took up the whole front cover of the first issue of the Review.) The audience laughed and gasped as he recollected a drunken, regrettable cocktail-party conversation with Baldwin after a Pinckney’s hubristic, regrettable review of Baldwin’s last novel. Pinckney redeemed himself, he said, with a more considered and nuanced set of pieces in the Review after Baldwin’s death, an opportunity he said he was grateful to Silvers and Epstein for. Someone in the audience yelled “Bravo!” when he was done.

Michael Chabon was the last to read, and he contributed a personal account of the wrenching process of writing (or trying to start writing) his first novel, in his mother’s basement, at age 23. In his introduction, Silvers had pointed out that Chabon was born only a few months after the first issue of the Review. Chabon replied that the magazine has remained a constant throughout his writing life.

“Before my association with the Review began, I was a reader who set his course by the star of the paper, and now I set my course as a writer by it,” Chabon said. “I never write a piece of nonfiction now without thinking, I wonder what Bob [Silvers] is going to think of this one?”

Chabon lamented, though, that he never had the chance to get caricatured by the late, great David Levine, who illustrated the Review from 1963 to 2007.

As the program came to a close, all of the night’s readers joined Silvers on stage for another round of applause and a question-and-answer session with the audience. But the audience was quiet—they were probably, as Silvers guessed, “sated.” There was only one question posed: “What do you hope to do in your next 50 years?”

“I must tell you, that these first fifty years have proceeded, not day by day, but hour by hour!” said Silvers. “And so…that’s what’s going to happen.”