“I think I’ve a terrible defect,” said Robert B. Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books, “which is, I don’t have a very full sense of time. I don’t feel an enormous accretion of years or anything like that. I’m very involved in what we’re doing here—as involved as ever—and I don’t think of a huge pile of years or a great heavy rock of a burden of years.”
Later this month, Mr. Silvers will turn 76. His tenure at The New York Review of Books represents one of the longest editorial collaborations in the literary world: He has edited The Review alongside Barbara Epstein since its founding in the winter of 1963. The Review has experienced a recent surge in significance since the Iraq war began, and remains one of the most revered literary and journalistic enterprises in publishing today—even as it is sometimes also seen as a tad musty. Mr. Silvers—a compulsively curious man—is an old-school editor in the truest sense of the word: Every sentence means something to him; every idea, be it about war or opera, must be handled with precision.
But even more than that, Mr. Silvers—and The Review by extension—is a memory bank of American intellectual life. The magazine and its galaxy of friends and contributors is one of the last connections to a bygone era—to Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald, to a time when ideas mattered and the smart people and the beautiful ones enjoyed a natural affinity.
Unlike some of his peers—say, the David Remnicks, who write their own stories and whose names are well-known, or the Katrina vanden Heuvels, who work the media circuit as advocates—Mr. Silvers remains behind the curtain. He and Ms. Epstein do almost everything themselves, from assigning and editing pieces to the outline of the cover designs, so The Review is seen as a place for bright young people to pass through. There is no way to move up, as everyone knows that Mr. Silvers (and his co-editor) don’t yield the real editing to anyone. The thought of a Review without Mr. Silvers is basically inconceivable.
“My expectation is that he will still be editing The Review when he’s 120,” Mark Danner, a contributor to The Review and a former Silvers assistant, said. “It’s hard for me to imagine Bob and The Review as separate entities.”
Said another former Review employee: “I feel like he’s gonna die in his chair.”
Imagining who could possibly step in for him is a bit of a game in literary and media circles. Mr. Silvers won’t discuss retirement. “We can’t do enough!” he said in response to a question on the subject. “I’d like to do more. I feel there are a huge amount of things we should be doing.”
Mr. Silvers has dark, gleaming eyes, a slightly waggish face, and seems younger than he actually is (this is possibly due to his devoted vegetarianism, which is said to have taken hold after he edited the animal-rights ethicist Peter Singer). On a recent Wednesday afternoon, he was wearing what is apparently a fairly typical workday outfit: a gray chalk-stripe suit, white dress shirt with starched collar, and a blue-and-white hound’s-tooth check tie—only he’d replaced the suit jacket with a navy cardigan streaked with stains, and the tie was shoved over to one side, as if he’d tried to yank it off.
Many of the subjects that The Review deals with, from art and literature to science and politics, reflect Mr. Silvers’ own intellectual voracity. He turns up at The Review’s midtown offices every day—walking, sometimes, from his apartment at 68th and Park—and often stays late into the night, fixated on shaping, clarifying and improving the dense critical essays and reported pieces that fill the pages of The Review every other week. He has four assistants who operate as his remote brains, helping to track the heaps of books that travel in and out each month. His office functions as a kind of nerve center: a vast, bright room, where he sits at a desk a few feet away from his quartet of helpers, with towers of books on every surface serving as substitute cubicle partitions. The atmosphere is intense and slightly hermetic.
He insists that he isn’t a workaholic, but that he’s motivated by “a feeling of the greatest urgency to deal with the manuscripts and the books and the things that we’re doing.”
Unless he has a particular engagement in the evening—perhaps a dinner party or a visit to Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera—he’ll just stay at his desk as long as he can. Sometimes, he’ll dart out to the aforementioned party and then return for a few more hours. (He also has a lady friend, Grace, Countess of Dudley, whom he affectionately calls “Youngie.”) He said that he only needs four or five hours of sleep, and he often does his reading—books and “dozens” of periodicals and newspapers, which he scours in search of writers who he thinks are special—late at night.
Editing was the natural thing for him to do, Mr. Silvers said. He attended the University of Chicago and started (and quit) Yale Law School, then was stationed in Paris while serving in the Army. He remained in Paris during the 1950’s and became a chum of George Plimpton, who made him an editor of The Paris Review (he is still a member of the Paris Review Foundation board and had a heavy hand in selecting that magazine’s new editor). He returned to the U.S. a few years later and worked as an editor at Harper’s.
A hint of obsessive compulsion creeps in when he discusses his work. “It is almost an uncontainable impulse, to make such suggestions in the prose. In a way, you can’t help it,” Mr. Silvers said of the editing process. “And you would feel terrible if you published something that you felt could be better, and you hadn’t tried to do something to improve it, or to suggest something to improve it. And that, I think, is what, in a way, editing is—it’s something you can’t help.” Mr. Silvers cited Elizabeth Hardwick and Joan Didion as two Review writers that he rarely needs to touch.
The Review was launched during the New York newspaper strike of 1962-63, which had put The New York Times Book Review out of commission. Jason Epstein, who was then at Random House, where he continues to edit the occasional book (and who established the paperback lines both there and at Doubleday), conspired with Ms. Epstein (his wife at the time), Ms. Hardwick and Robert Lowell (who were then married to each other) about the idea for a new literary review. They invited Mr. Silvers to serve as co-editor and published a first issue that featured Mary McCarthy, W.H. Auden, Philip Rahv and Norman Mailer, among other writers.
One of their priorities was to maintain control over their editorial content. “There was no publisher, no foundation, no person who, because they were rich, could tell us what to do,” Mr. Silvers said.
Since 1984, The Review has been owned by Rea Hederman, who is regarded as a benevolent and hands-off publisher. Paid circulation stands at the improbably large figure of 127,000 and increased 10 percent over the last five years, according to Jenie Hederman, Mr. Hederman’s daughter, who works at The Review. The journal has for many years made a profit.
It was in the late 1960’s, during the most heated time of the Vietnam War, that The Review started printing anti-war pieces by McCarthy, Noam Chomsky and I.F. Stone, in addition to high-quality literary criticism, often sparking outrage and intellectual splits that persist to this day. The present conflict in Iraq has infused The Review with a similar sort of political purpose.
“There are obvious similarities,” Mr. Silvers said, contrasting the Vietnam days with the current. “The country is at war. It’s a highly controversial war. And there are people dying, and there’s an element now which I think we in the paper have felt very strongly about, which is this common use of torture.”
Mr. Silvers and The Review commissioned and published many pieces that were critical of the Bush administration’s conduct in the war and other matters early on. Mr. Silvers said that it “nags” at him that some of his writers have had “insights and perceptions about international power and the war that are very important, that should have but haven’t got the attention they deserve.” He shuffled through a folder of recent stories, pointing out Frances FitzGerald’s September 2002 interview with Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor to George Bush senior, who was opposed to the Iraq invasion; Brian Urquhart’s coverage of Hans Blix and the aborted Iraqi weapons inspections; Michael Massing’s critical stories about the press and reporting on W.M.D.; and Mr. Danner’s pieces on torture and Abu Ghraib as some examples.
However, Mr. Silvers said that he doesn’t believe that articles in The Review can have an impact in any concrete way, and that he felt the same way during the Vietnam War. When asked why he thought it was important for The Review to address such issues if that was the case, Mr. Silvers said: “I think it’s a question of historical truth about life-and-death matters.
“We started this paper in a great fit of intense hope …. And ever since then, I have been constantly trying to keep up,” Mr. Silvers said. “I feel it’s a fantastic opportunity—because of the freedom of it, because of the sense that there are marvelous, intensely interesting, important questions that you have a chance to try to deal with in an interesting way. That’s an extraordinary opportunity in life. And you’d be crazy not to try and make the most of it.”