The current issue of The New York Review of Books is its 50th anniversary issue. Without wanting to sound pompous (and failing spectacularly), reading the NYRB is like dipping into a specific moment in the past – fin de siècle Vienna, that period of ideas and debate that spanned the latter years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th. The NYRB is, for me, an unashamedly Enlightenment publication. It takes a rather pragmatic (in a philosophical sense) approach to its topics, questioning without being cynical. Glib is a word that could never be associated with the Review. And its topics are diverse. Much of what I know about subjects ranging from art to science comes from having subscribed to the Review since the middle of the last decade and from following up on what I have read between its pages. Consecutive articles in the 50th anniversary issue discuss, in order: the economic implications of automatization and now digitisation; the rise of creating writing as a taught subject in U.S. universities; police/state repression in China; and a Balthus exhibition. In terms of contributors, The Review’s scope is wide. The anniversary issue contains contributions from four Nobel laureates and an essay on Proust by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Beyer.
Typically, an essay in the Review will use a book or exhibition, movie or television series (granted movie and TV series discussions are rare) – as framing device for a broader discussion of the general topic. So, for instance, the current issue includes author Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Not only does Mendelsohn consider the move from the written page to the TV screen and how that has impacted on the telling of the Game of Thrones story, but he also suggests that what ostensibly seems like ‘a testosterone-fueled swashbuckler’ instead creates ‘alternatives to the narratives of male growth’ in its development into a ‘remarkable feminist epic.’
The Review was founded by Robert E. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, who co-edited it until her death in 2006, at which point Silvers assumed the mantle of sole editor. It has a belief not so much in humanity per se – its long interest in the obliteration of both everyday and intellectual life in Europe during World War II suggests a questioning of how humane humans can be as a species – but in people (as individuals or in communities) to rise above the fray in search of betterment. Granted, its letters pages sometimes threaten to reach below the fray – I’m only half kidding. The Washington Post called the letters page ‘the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing.’ The letters can be vigorous (to put it lightly) but are generally well-considered and vigorously researched – it’s not unusual for a letter/reply to include footnotes.
New York Review Books, the journal’s publishing house, publishes books under the New York Review Books Classics, New York Review Books Collections, The New York Review Children’s Collection and NYRB Lit. The Classics imprint has released translations of works previously unavailable in English. NYRB Lit is an imprint for e-book only contemporary titles both fiction and non-fiction and from different parts of the world. The intention is to focus on titles deemed too risky or expensive for traditional publishers but thanks to the economics of e-books have become publishable.
It is difficult to capture the essence of the Review in a single contributor and maybe perhaps unfair, given that it is the dedication of Silvers and the late Epstein that has ensured its longevity. But I think it’s no coincidence that the anniversary issue contains an excerpt from Tony Judt’s essay “Edge People,” originally published in the March 25, 2010, issue. Judt, who died in August 2010, was a brilliant historian and essayist, whose easy writing style hid a vigorous form of analysis and an extraordinary intellectual range. His Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is hard to match as a general history of modern Europe. In “Edge People,” Judt considered his own identity as an English-born ‘non-Jewish Jew’ teaching in New York but who felt most at home at the ‘edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another – where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.’