A Better Way To Live: Reflecting On the Legacy of Robert Silvers (1929-2017)
I was not raised on fancy magazines. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw or heard of The Atlantic Monthly until my older brother came home with a copy after his first semester of college. I’m sure I’d come across the New Yorker at a Barnes and Noble. But unlike many of my eventual college peers, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with it. My parents encouraged us to read books—old and new—that people wrote about, or referred to in perpetuity, in fancy magazines. We didn’t read them to uphold or enhance some elite status, because we didn’t have any. We just read them.
Which is probably why my first encounter with the New York Review of Books—while housesitting for a family with some status—was so uncanny. Gathering the mail as I returned from a day of boring office work, an oddly shaped magazine unfolded in my hands. It was big, strong and flimsy, coarse and smooth, part newspaper, part free city weekly, part academic journal, and kinda New Yorker and Atlantic. But it was also distinct from all of the above.
That night I dove in. I don’t even remember what I dove into. It could have been an essay about Hobbes, or health care, Pablo Neruda, or conservative Christians. It could have been written by Michael Ignatieff, or Ronald Dworkin, Helen Vendler, or Garry Wills. All I remember is my eyes hovering over the densely-populated pages, wanting more. It was a cold January evening (then morning, then afternoon) in a northern Chicago suburb. But I was being transported to the warmth of the Sahara Desert, the implacability of Europe’s ethnic divides, the inner workings of Washington and Wall St. All of which—little did I know—was being curated by a Long Island farm boy named Robert Silvers, who became the literary conscience of the big city.
At the time his name wouldn’t have meant anything to me. But my first encounter with his magazine felt like meeting a future spouse; whatever adolescent resources I’d acquired to mess around with the wrong women or lesser magazines probably wouldn’t work here in the adult world. It’s not that those other magazines, or dates, weren’t informative in important ways. But this (including a subscription fee north of $65) was different, because I didn’t just want it. If I was going to become a better me, I needed it.
When the first few issues of the New York Review of Books started arriving, I began acquainting myself with what those wants and needs were. I knew that I wanted to read like this, think like this, and (in a faint and naïve sort of way) maybe someday write like this. What I needed was to see, over and over again, how it was done. Where my college and graduate school writing up to that point was full of big stylized ideas, it was mostly devoid of real thought. In observing Darryl Pinkney delicately unearth America’s original sin, or Tony Judt reflect on his impending death alongside Europe’s slow neo-liberal decline, I caught a glimpse of what the intricate and intimate work of writing was all about.
“How long is a generation these days,” Zadie Smith asked in her 2010 essay, “Generation Why”:
"I must be in Mark Zuckerberg’s generation—there are only nine years between us—but somehow it doesn’t feel that way. This despite the fact that I can say (like everyone else on Harvard’s campus in the fall of 2003) that “I was there” at Facebook’s inception, and remember Facemash and the fuss it caused; also that tiny, exquisite movie star trailed by fan-boys through the snow wherever she went, and the awful snow itself, turning your toes gray, destroying your spirit, bringing a bloodless end to a squirrel on my block: frozen, inanimate, perfect—like the Blaschka glass flowers. Doubtless years from now I will misremember my closeness to Zuckerberg, in the same spirit that everyone in ’60s Liverpool met John Lennon.
At the time, though, I felt distant from Zuckerberg and all the kids at Harvard. I still feel distant from them now, ever more so, as I increasingly opt out (by choice, by default) of the things they have embraced. We have different ideas about things. Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better."
I take the liberty of sharing two full paragraphs because they illustrate the humane vision that Robert Silvers helped bring to life. If Generation 2.0 was being swiftly seduced by the presumption of redefining what it means to be a person, Smith’s review—of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s film, The Social Network, and Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not A Gadget—offered a contemplative moment of reasoned dissent. In it, she recognized that the undertaking of mass-digital-codification was buttressed by a network of clichés that necessarily ignored reality. Silvers championed a prophetic article about a better way to live. I closed my Facebook account.
When (at 83) he started fielding interviews in 2013, attending to the Review’s fiftieth anniversary, whatever affection I had for “the paper” was reframed by the portrait that emerged of a real person behind it all. In New York Magazine, Silvers looked back on a journal that was “determined by friendship, by a shared belief in uncompromising quality in writing and by a sense that so much conventional criticism was superficial and lazy.” Speaking with Emily Stokes of the Financial Times, he sounded unfazed by the dyer forecasting of print journalism’s decline, or digitally malformed attention spans. Other publications hurried to accommodate the new norms of digital media. Silvers stayed above the fray, maintaining his sense of responsibility to a very basic calling: “We are constantly asking our readers to clarify their arguments and to provide examples.” And he meant it. Where other editors may have been satisfied with what Silvers called overpromoted reputations, the Review resisted the lure of celebrity. Though it leaned politically to the left, it also refused to accept ideological overstatements or endorse the latest fashions in academic abstraction. Instead, it demanded concrete arguments that related to lived experience. For Smith, it was Silvers’ need for clarity and deep affection for individual sensibility that made writing for him such a freeing (though “the opposite of a free-for-all”) experience.
As I was learning more about Silvers I decided—for better or worse—that it was time to start writing. Only a few years before I’d set my sights on a life in academia. But pursuing a career in a humanities discipline was speculative (to say the least), in a landscape that increasingly celebrated hollow abstractions. What’s more, I was tired of my term papers, which were mostly attempts to prove that I’d read the required texts and researched a few tangential connections. Was I really challenging myself to clarify my arguments, or provide meaningful examples? Did I have the skill or patience to persuade anybody, besides myself? And, in all seriousness, did I even have a point of view? The honest, and somewhat embarrassing, answer to all these questions was no.
The equally honest (and somewhat terrifying) reality was that I would need to become a better reader if I was going to identify a point of view worth writing about. The reading was a habit I could keep up. Writing about the reading was a riddle I struggled to solve. I had no journalistic experience, no connections, meager practice, and totally raw (if any) talent. I also read the Review, which meant I was keenly aware of how bad my writing was. For a good while the decision to write simply inspired fear that I was nothing more than a fraud who would have traded a persuasive point of view for the slightest hint of an overpromoted reputation. At a time when the financial viability of journalism problematized any future in the profession, there was little solace in working at a brewpub where my pay was contingent on a stranger’s evaluation of how well I delivered their dinner.
Battling fear and doubt, I remember looking back at my copy of the Review’s first printed paper. I’d read the famous editor’s message “To The Reader” before. But this time I studied with attention. What was the New York Review of Books after? What did it want? Why, after fifty years, was Silvers still as ambitious and tireless as he was when the project began?
It was after “reviews of some of the more interesting and important books published.” It wanted to shed light on “temporarily inflated” reputations, and call attention to the occasional fraud. It was anchored in a hope that the qualities of responsible literary journalism were not only in need, but in demand.
Upon reflection, I wanted the same things and shared the same hope, so I kept writing. As a talisman—against whatever ridicule or rejection I was sure to experience—I placed a posted-note next to my desk that read, “If it’s good, it won’t matter.” Eventually I mustered up the courage to submit essays and reviews. To my surprise, some were good enough to be published. In the recesses of my mind I still wanted to write for Robert Silvers, who Smith recently said was the priest of “a very broad church with a narrow entrance marked: if it’s good.” Though I had a long way to go on my pilgrimage, maybe (without even knowing it) I was on the right path.
Since his death, many have reflected on just what it meant to write for Bob: an experience that, to Joan Didion, meant you were needed. For Fintan O’Toole, Robert Silvers needed writers who were willing to fight with him for the existence of a public realm that could repel two equally great dangers. “One is the culture of self-enclosed, technocratic expertise, the hiving off of intellectual life into increasingly minute specializations and increasingly impenetrable professional dialects. The other is the insistence—so much in ascendant now—that there is no expertise at all, that scholarship and rigor and evidence are mere playthings of elitists and eggheads.” One can only hope that the fight against these tendencies (equally in play on the left and the right) will go on at the Review in his absence.
Whether or not it does, Robert Silvers’ part in the fight has sadly come to an end. In the last two months, I’ve found it hard to imagine what my life—and bookshelves—would look like without the influence of a man I never met. I think Mark Lilla summed it up the best, when he said that if you read the Review you would always learn something. But “in writing for Bob you became something.” In reading the New York Review of Books, I learned what I wanted to become.
 His co-founder and editor, Barbara Epstein, had already passed by then.