The New York Review of Books (or NYREV or NYRB) is a semi-monthly magazine with articles on literature, culture, economics, science and current affairs. Published in New York City, it is inspired by the idea that the discussion of important books is an indispensable literary activity. Esquire called it "the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language." In 1970 writer Tom Wolfe described it as "the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic".
The Review publishes long-form reviews and essays, often by well-known writers, original poetry, and has lively letters and personals advertising sections. In 1979 the magazine founded the London Review of Books, which continues independently. In 1990 it founded an Italian edition, la Rivista dei Libri, published until 2010. Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein edited the paper together from its founding in 1963, until her death in 2006. Since then, Silvers has been sole editor. The Review has a book publishing division, established in 1999, called New York Review Books, which publishes classics, collections and children's books. Since 2010, the journal has hosted an online blog written by its contributors.
History and description
The New York Review was founded by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, together with publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth and writer Elizabeth Hardwick. They were backed and encouraged by Epstein's husband, Jason Epstein, a vice president at Random House and editor of Vintage Books, and Hardwick's husband, poet Robert Lowell. In 1959 Hardwick had published "The Decline of Book Reviewing" in Harper's, where Silvers was then an editor, in a special issue that he edited called "Writing in America". Her essay was an indictment of American book reviews of the time, "light, little article[s]" that she decried as "lobotomized", passionless praise and denounced as "blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally." The group was inspired to found a new magazine to publish thoughtful, probing, lively reviews featuring what Hardwick called "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting".
During the New York printers' strike of 1963, when The New York Times and six other newspapers had suspended publication, Hardwick, Lowell and the Epsteins seized the chance to establish the sort of vigorous book review that Hardwick had imagined. Jason Epstein knew that book publishers would advertise their books in the new publication, since they had no other outlet for promoting new books. The group turned to the Epsteins' friend Silvers, who had been an editor at The Paris Review and was still at Harper's, to edit the publication, and Silvers asked Barbara Epstein to co-edit with him. She was known as the editor at Doubleday of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, among other books, and then worked at Dutton, McGraw-Hill and The Partisan Review. Silvers and Epstein sent books to "the writers we knew and admired most. ... We asked for three thousand words in three weeks in order to show what a book review should be, and practically everyone came through. No one mentioned money." The first issue of the Review was published on February 1, 1963 and sold out its printing of 100,000 copies. It prompted nearly 1,000 letters to the editors asking for the Review to continue. The New Yorker called it "surely the best first issue of any magazine ever." After the success of the first issue, the editors assembled a second issue to demonstrate that "the Review was not a one-shot affair". The founders then collected investments from a circle of friends and acquaintances, and Ellsworth joined as publisher. The Review began regular biweekly publication in November 1963.
Silvers said of the editors' philosophy, that "there was no subject we couldn't deal with. And if there was no book [on a subject], we would deal with it anyway. We tried hard to avoid books that were simply competent rehearsals of familiar subjects, and we hoped to find books that would establish something fresh, something original." In particular, "We felt you had to have a political analysis of the nature of power in America – who had it, who was affected". The editors also shared an "intense admiration for wonderful writers". Well-known writers were willing to contribute articles for the initial issues of the Review without pay because it offered them a chance to write a new kind of book review. As Mark Gevisser explained: "The essays ... made the book review form not just a report on the book and a judgment of the book, but an essay in itself. And that, I think, startled everyone – that a book review could be exciting in that way, could be provocative in that way." Early issues included articles by such writers as Hardwick, Lowell, Jason Epstein, Hannah Arendt, W. H. Auden, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Truman Capote, Paul Goodman, Lillian Hellman, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Rahv, Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren and Edmund Wilson. The Review pointedly published interviews with European political dissidents, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Václav Havel. But, Silvers notes, it is a mystery whether "reviews have a calculable political and social impact" or will even gain attention: "You mustn't think too much about influence – if you find something interesting yourself, that should be enough."
Salon later commented that the list of contributors "represented a 'shock and awe' demonstration of the intellectual firepower available for deployment in mid-century America, and, almost equally impressive, of the art of editorial networking and jawboning. This was the party everyone who was anyone wanted to attend, the Black and White Ball of the critical elite." The Review "announced the arrival of a particular sensibility ... the engaged, literary, post-war progressive intellectual, who was concerned with civil rights and feminism as well as fiction and poetry and theater. The first issue projected "a confidence in the unquestioned rightness of the liberal consensus, in the centrality of literature and its power to convey meaning, in the solubility of our problems through the application of intelligence and good will, and in the coherence and clear hierarchy of the intellectual world".
During the year-long lock-out at The Times in London in 1979, the Review founded a daughter publication, the London Review of Books. For the first six months, this journal appeared as an insert in the New York Review of Books, but it became an independent publication in 1980. In 1990 the Review founded an Italian edition, la Rivista dei Libri. It was published for two decades until May 2010.
For over 40 years, Silvers and Epstein edited the Review together. In 1984, Silvers, Epstein and their partners sold the Review to publisher Rea S. Hederman, who still owns the paper, but the two continued as its editors. In 2006, Epstein died of cancer at the age of 77. In awarding to Epstein and Silvers its 2006 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, the National Book Foundation stated: "With The New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein raised book reviewing to an art and made the discussion of books a lively, provocative and intellectual activity."
Since Epstein's death, Silvers has been the sole editor. Asked in December 2007 about who might succeed him as editor, Silvers demurred, "It's not a question that's posing itself." When The New York Times renewed the question in 2012, Silvers said, "I can think of several people who would be marvelous editors. Some of them work here, some used to work here, and some are just people we know. I think they would put out a terrific paper, but it would be different." In 2008, the Review celebrated its 45th anniversary with a panel discussion at the New York Public Library, moderated by Silvers, discussing "What Happens Now" in the United States after the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president. Panelists included Review contributors such as Didion, Wills, novelist and literary critic Darryl Pinckney, political commentator Michael Tomasky, and Columbia University professor and contributor Andrew Delbanco. The 45th anniversary edition of the Review (November 20, 2008) began with a posthumous piece by Edmund Wilson, who wrote for the paper's first issue in 1963.
In 2008, the paper moved its headquarters from Midtown Manhattan to 435 Hudson Street, located in the West Village. In 2010, it launched a blog section of its website that The New York Times calls "lively and opinionated", and it hosts podcasts. Regarding how social media might affect the subject matter of the Review, Silvers commented: "I might imagine [a] witty, aphoristic, almost Oscar Wildean [anthology of] remarks, drawn from the millions and millions of tweets. Or from comments that follow on blogs. ... Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. ... And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words ... growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence." In 2016, Hederman said that he sees the Review continuing to operate unchanged in five years.
The Review began its year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation by Silvers and several contributors at The Town Hall in New York City on February 5, 2013. Other events included a program at the New York Public Library on April 3, 2013, called "Literary Journalism: A Discussion", focusing on the editorial process at the Review and a reception on November 7 at the Frick Collection. During the year, Martin Scorsese filmed a documentary about the history and influence of the Review, and the debates that it has spawned, titled The 50 Year Argument, which premiered in June 2014 at the Sheffield Doc/Fest and has since been seen at various film festivals, on BBC television and on HBO in the US. Asked how he maintains his "level of meticulousness and determination" after 50 years, Silvers said: "the New York Review was and is a unique opportunity ... to do what one wants on anything in the world. Now, that is given to hardly any editor, anywhere, anytime. There are no strictures, no limits. Nobody saying you can't do something. No subject, no theme, no idea that can’t be addressed in-depth. ... Whatever work is involved is minor compared to the opportunity. That is the essence. That is the nature of the magazine." A special 50th anniversary issue was dated November 7, 2013. Silvers said:
"An independent, critical voice on politics, literature, science, and the arts seems as much needed today as it was when Barbara Epstein and I put out the first edition of the New York Review fifty years ago – perhaps even more so. Electronic forms of communication grow rapidly in every field of life but many of their effects on culture remain obscure and in need of new kinds of critical scrutiny. That will be a central concern of the Review for the years to come."
The Review has been described as a "kind of magazine ... in which the most interesting and qualified minds of our time would discuss current books and issues in depth ... a literary and critical journal based on the assumption that the discussion of important books was itself an indispensable literary activity." Each issue includes a broad range of subject matter, including "articles on art, science, politics and literature." Early on, the editors decided that the Review would "be interested in everything ... no subject would be excluded. Someone is writing a piece about Nascar racing for us; another is working on Veronese." The Review has focused, however, on political topics; as Silvers commented in 2004:
"The pieces we have published by such writers as Brian Urquhart, Thomas Powers, Mark Danner and Ronald Dworkin have been reactions to a genuine crisis concerning American destructiveness, American relations with its allies, American protections of its traditions of liberties. ... The aura of patriotic defiance cultivated by the [Bush] Administration, in a fearful atmosphere, had the effect of muffling dissent."
The Nation gave a brief historical overview of the New York Review of Books in 2004, and noted changes since 2001:
[T]he Review took a vocal role in contesting the Vietnam War. ... Around 1970, a sturdy liberalism began to supplant left-wing radicalism at the paper. As Philip Nobile observed in ... 1974 ... the Review returned to its roots and became "a literary magazine on the British nineteenth-century model, which would mix politics and literature in a tough but gentlemanly fashion." ... The publication has always been erudite and authoritative – and because of its analytical rigor and seriousness, frequently essential – but it hasn't always been lively, pungent and readable. ... But the election of George W. Bush, combined with the furies of 9/11, jolted the editors. Since 2001, the Review's temperature has risen and its political outlook has sharpened. ... Prominent [writers for] the Review ... charged into battle not only against the White House but against the lethargic press corps and the "liberal hawk" intellectuals. ... In stark contrast to The New Yorker ... or The New York Times Magazine ..., the Review opposed the Iraq war in a voice that was remarkably consistent and unified.
In 2012, editor Bob Silvers told The New York Times, "The great political issues of power and its abuses have always been natural questions for us."
Over the years, the Review has featured reviews and articles by such international writers and intellectuals, in addition to those already noted, as Timothy Garton Ash, Margaret Atwood, Russell Baker, Saul Bellow, Isaiah Berlin, Harold Bloom, Joseph Brodsky, Noam Chomsky, J. M. Coetzee, Frederick Crews, Ronald Dworkin, John Kenneth Galbraith, Nadine Gordimer, Stephen Jay Gould, Christopher Hitchens, Tim Judah, Murray Kempton, Paul Krugman, Richard Lewontin, Perry Link, Alison Lurie, Peter Medawar, Daniel Mendelsohn, Bill Moyers, Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Nader, V. S. Naipaul, Peter G. Peterson, Samantha Power, Nathaniel Rich, Felix Rohatyn, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Searle, Zadie Smith, Timothy Snyder, George Soros, I. F. Stone, Desmond Tutu, John Updike, Derek Walcott, Steven Weinberg, Garry Wills and Tony Judt. According to the National Book Foundation: "From Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson to Gore Vidal and Joan Didion, The New York Review of Books has consistently employed the liveliest minds in America to think about, write about, and debate books and the issues they raise."
The Review also devotes space in most issues to poetry, and has featured the work of such poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Ted Hughes, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney, Octavio Paz, and Czeslaw Milosz. For writers, the "depth [of the articles], and the quality of the people writing for it, has made a Review byline a résumé definer. If one wishes to be thought of as a certain type of writer – of heft, style and a certain gravitas – a Review byline is pretty much the gold standard." In editing a piece, Silvers has said that he asks himself "sentence by sentence, if [the point could] be clearer, while also respecting the writer’s voice and tone. You have to listen carefully to the tone of the writer’s prose and try to adapt to it, but only up to a point. [But no change is ever made without the writers' permission.] ... Writers deserve the final word about their prose."
In addition to domestic matters, the Review covers issues of international concern. A British commentator noted in the 1980s, "In the 1960s [the Review] opposed American involvement in Vietnam; more recently it has taken a line mildly Keynesian in economics, pro-Israeli but Anti-Zionist, sceptical of Reagan's Latin-American policy". The British newspaper The Independent has described the Review as "the only mainstream American publication to speak out consistently against the war in Iraq." On Middle East coverage, Silvers said, "any serious criticism of Israeli policy will be seen by some as heresy, a form of betrayal. ... [M]uch of what we've published has come from some of the most respected and brilliant Israeli writers ... Amos Elon, Avishai Margalit, David Grossman, David Shulman, among them. What emerges from them is a sense that occupying land and people year after year can only lead to a sad and bad result."
Caricaturist David Levine illustrated The New York Review of Books from 1963 to 2007, giving the paper a distinctive visual image. Levine died in 2009. John Updike, whom Levine drew many times, wrote in the 1970s: "Besides offering us the delight of recognition, his drawings comfort us, in an exacerbated and potentially desperate age, with the sense of a watching presence, an eye informed by an intelligence that has not panicked, a comic art ready to encapsulate the latest apparitions of publicity as well as those historical devils who haunt our unease." Levine contributed more than 3,800 pen-and-ink caricatures of famous writers, artists and politicians for the publication. Silvers said: "David combined acute political commentary with a certain kind of joke about the person. He was immensely sensitive to the smallest details – people’s shoulders, their feet, their elbows. He was able to find character in these details." The New York Times described Levine's illustrations as
"macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates" that were "replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o'clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles ... to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg".
The Washington Post described the "lively literary disputes" conducted in the 'letters to the editor' column of the Review as "the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing". In addition to reviews, interviews and articles, the paper features extensive advertising from publishers promoting newly published books. It includes a popular "personals" section that "share[s] a cultivated writing style" with its articles. One lonely heart, author Jane Juska, documented the 63 replies to her personal ad in the Review with a 2003 memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman, that became a West-End play.
Several of the magazine's editorial assistants have become prominent in journalism, academia and literature, including Jean Strouse, Deborah Eisenberg, Mark Danner and A. O. Scott. Another former intern and a contributor to the Review, author Claire Messud, says: "They’re incredibly generous about taking the time to go through things. So much of [business today] is about people doing things quickly, with haste. One of the first things to go out the window is a type of graciousness. ... There’s a whole sort of rhythm and tone of how they deal with people. I’m sure it was always rare. But it feels incredibly precious now."
The Washington Post calls the Review "a journal of ideas that has helped define intellectual discourse in the English-speaking world for the past four decades. ... By publishing long, thoughtful articles on politics, books and culture, [the editors] defied trends toward glibness, superficiality and the cult of celebrity". Similarly, the Chicago Tribune praised the paper as "one of the few venues in American life that takes ideas seriously. And it pays readers the ultimate compliment of assuming that we do too." In a 2006 New York magazine feature, James Atlas stated: "It's an eclectic but impressive mix [of articles] that has made The New York Review of Books the premier journal of the American intellectual elite". The Atlantic commented in 2011 that the Review is written with "a freshness of perspective", and "much of it shapes our most sophisticated public discourse." In celebrating the 35th birthday of the Review in 1998, The New York Times commented, "The N.Y.R. gives off rogue intimations of being fun to put out. It hasn't lost its sneaky nip of mischief".
"The ... issues of the Review to date provide a history of the cultural life of the east coast since 1963. It manages to be ... serious with a fierce democratic edge. ... It is one of the last places in the English-speaking world that will publish long essays ... and possibly the very last to combine academic rigour – even the letters to the editor are footnoted – with great clarity of language."
In New York magazine, in February 2011, Oliver Sacks stated that the Review is "one of the great institutions of intellectual life here or anywhere." In 2012, The New York Times described the Review as "elegant, well mannered, immensely learned, a little formal at times, obsessive about clarity and factual correctness and passionately interested in human rights and the way governments violate them."
Known throughout its history as a left-liberal journal, what Tom Wolfe called "the chief theoretical organ of radical chic", the Review has, perhaps, had its most effective voice in wartime. According to a 2004 feature in The Nation,
"One suspects they yearn for the day when they can return to their normal publishing routine – that gentlemanly pastiche of philosophy, art, classical music, photography, German and Russian history, East European politics, literary fiction – unencumbered by political duties of a confrontational or oppositional nature. That day has not yet arrived. If and when it does, let it be said that the editors met the challenges of the post-9/11 era in a way that most other leading American publications did not, and that The New York Review of Books ... was there when we needed it most."
Sometimes accused of insularity, the Review has been called "The New York Review of Each Other's Books". Philip Nobile expressed a mordant criticism along these lines in his book Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and the New York Review of Books. The Guardian characterized such accusations as "sour grapes". In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "the pages of the 45th anniversary issue, in fact, reveal the actuality of [the paper's] willfully panoramic view".
The Washington Post called the 2013 50th Anniversary issue "gaudy with intellectual firepower. Four Nobel Laureates have bylines. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer muses on reading Proust. There's the transcript of a long-lost lecture by T. S. Eliot." In 2014, Rachel Cooke wrote in The Observer of a recent issue of the Review: "The offer of such an embarrassment of riches is wholly amazing in a world where print journalism increasingly operates in the most threadbare of circumstances". America magazine echoed Zoë Heller's words about the Review: "I like it because it educates me."
Other publications; archives
The book publishing arm of the Review, established in 1999, is New York Review Books, which has three imprints, "NYRB Classics", "NYRB Collections" and "NYR Children's Collection". The NYRB Classics imprint reissues books that have gone out of print in the United States and translations of classics. It has been called "a marvellous literary imprint ... that has put hundreds of wonderful books back on our shelves." NYRB Collections publishes collections of articles from frequent Review contributors.