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Awards & Honors: 2012 National Humanities Medalist

Robert B. Silvers

Robert B. Silvers is an editor, which he describes as “a kind of middleman between talented, brilliant, interesting writers, on the one hand, and readers who can appreciate them.” Silvers has been an editor since his early twenties when, after an Army stint in Paris, he went to work for George Plimpton at the Paris Review. Next he returned home to New York to become an associate editor at Harper’s magazine, where he commissioned a well-remembered piece by Elizabeth Hardwick on the state of book reviewing. “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene: a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.” What was missing was “involvement, passion, character, eccentricity” and, finally, “the literary tone itself.”

As the longtime coeditor and, since 2006, sole editor of the New York Review of Books, Silvers has been so much more than a middleman. He is a bringer of culture, a champion of literature, a uniquely talented matchmaker of books and reviewers, of subjects and writers, while the Review itself has come to be regarded as a standing argument against the idea that with every new technology American culture strays further from the primacy of the written word and anything that smacks of the intellectual and the individualistic. This year, as the journal turns fifty, its circulation, with 149,000 paid subscribers, is higher than ever.

The Review was founded in 1963, during a newspaper strike. Newspaper reviews and ads were central to book-selling, and for almost four months there were none. A group of friends decided, over dinner, to open their own book review. They were Jason Epstein, the book editor who had realized there was a market for literary classics in paperback, his wife, Barbara, another publishing insider known for having discovered and published Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the poet Robert Lowell, and Lowell’s wife, the aforementioned Elizabeth Hardwick. And they thought of Robert Silvers to help run it.

With no money and a priceless rolodex, Silvers and Barbara Epstein put out a debut issue drenched in first-rate talent: Dwight Macdonald reviewed Arthur Schlesinger, Philip Rahv reviewed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Mary McCarthy reviewed William Burroughs. The issue included W. H. Auden (as both reviewer and reviewee) and a poem by Robert Penn Warren. The younger generation of novelists and essayists yielded several contributors: Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and William Styron. Even today, when Silvers talks about finding reviewers, he talks about looking for “the best writer in the world on such a book.”

In addition to publishing book reviews, the fortnightly paper covers current events. I ask Silvers whether the Review has changed much since the days when I. F. Stone was writing against the Vietnam War and a report on the Newark riots was illustrated by a diagram of a Molotov cocktail on the cover. He says no, he does not think their beliefs have changed. But he also mentions a variety of commentators on the Vietnam War—George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Hannah Arendt—who were published in the Review and emphasizes that the infamous diagram was modified in order to avoid showing how to build a Molotov cocktail. “It was a great mistake to put it on our cover because it allowed many people to, without looking carefully at what we were doing or knowing what we’re doing, to falsely criticize the Review.”

This publication has always defended, Silvers says, “the human rights of people who are being bullied, repressed, and tortured.” He cites an early interview with Solzhenitsyn, prison letters from Vaclav Havel, articles by Andrei Sakharov on Russia and Simon Leys on China.

It is hard to summarize what makes the Review great. One is reduced to saying things like, oh, you really should read Tim Parks’s recent essay on Dave Eggers. And did you catch Sean Wilentz arguing with the Oliver Stone series on American history? What about those pieces by Claire Messud and Zadie Smith?

Here, in the New York Review of Books, is where a great many distinguished intellectuals make all sorts of comments on the state of our culture, where Robert Darnton recently delivered his brief for the Digital Public Library of America, four decades after Edmund Wilson, in these same pages, took up the debate that led to the NEH-supported Library of America series.

An affable workaholic, Silvers, who is eighty-three years old, can be found on Sunday afternoons at his editing desk. In the evenings he is known to head off to the opera and return to the office afterward. The historian Timothy Garton Ash, a frequent contributor, once told the New York Times about receiving a phone call from Silvers on Christmas Day to discuss a dangling modifier.

Grateful for the chance to do something worthwhile, Silvers tries to make the most of it, guided by his own editorial sense of where the story is. He and Epstein never conducted a readers’ survey. “We did what was interesting to us.” Some kind of faith, he says, carried the project forward, a belief that it was possible to produce and find an audience for what the first issue called a “responsible literary journal.”

— by David Skinner

David Skinner is the editor of HUMANITIES magazine.