Fifty years of tradition: The New York Review of Books

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Fifty years ago, when a printers' strike silenced New York's newspapers, Robert Silvers and his friends started The New York Review of Books with a lineup of such formidable writers as Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer and W.H. Auden.

When the second issue appeared, Pittsburgh native Al Van Dine subscribed to the biweekly magazine that covers literature, culture and current affairs and whose readers appreciate authoritative writers, many of whom have academic heft or harrumph, depending on their mood.

"I had to educate myself," said Mr. Van Dine, the retired founder of a successful local ad agency who still reads the review. Among his favorite contributors was legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who died in February.

"He was great at saying why [U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin] Scalia was full of it but there was no name calling," said Mr. Van Dine, an avowed liberal whose regular perch is a table at Commonplace Coffeehouse in Squirrel Hill, where he sits with a laptop and daily dose of caffeine.

The New York Review of Books began this year by celebrating its 50th birthday, and Mr. Silvers, its 83-year-old editor, has enjoyed a rousing victory lap, including an appearance at New York's Town Hall with readings by longtime contributors plus a visit to the White House last summer to receive the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

From its inception, the New York Review's dual guiding force was Barbara Epstein, who served as co-editor until her death in 2006. She and Jason Epstein, her husband at the time, were among the founders, along with Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick.

In the beginning, the magazine was a gray publication with plenty of headlines and text. The cover of the Dec. 19 holiday issue features red and blue typeface and a color image; inside are scads of ads from university presses. Like many print publications, it has launched a website with a blog, archives, videos and products for sale.

About 150,000 people read The New York Review of Books in print or online, said Catherine Tice, associate publisher. Figures from the Alliance for Audited Media show that as of June 2013, The Atlantic Monthly had a circulation of print and online readers that totaled 477,990 while Harper's Magazine had 187,635 readers.

Unlike some journals that depend on subsidies or a nonprofit foundation, The New York Review has maintained its independence and financial health. Since 1984, it has been owned by Rea S. Hederman, who comes from a Mississippi newspaper family.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Silvers said his publication's goal remains unchanged: "to review only books that we thought deserved review" and to find respected writers who produce thoughtful essays, not boring book reports.

He owes a great deal to the University of Chicago, where he was a student from 1945 through 1947, graduating at age 17.

On that campus, he said, everyone studied "the biological sciences, the physical sciences, the humanities, drama, fiction, poetry, philosophy and history as well as mathematics. ... Everyone read Aristotle. Everyone read 'Madame Bovary.' Everyone read Marx. Everyone read St. Augustine and everyone read Freud. The campus was seething with G.I.'s who wanted to make the most of their education."

That education prepared him to be an editor.

"We respect the views of our writers ... and they are often quite different," Mr. Silvers said.

In 1960, while an editor at Harper's, he asked James Baldwin, the novelist and social critic, to write an article about Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin analyzed the civil right's leader's message, embrace of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent tactics and the pitfalls King was bound to confront in the future.

"I asked Jimmy if he saw a pressure coming on King to act more vigorously," Mr. Silvers recalled.

Baldwin replied, "If I went into that, I'd have to write about the Black Panthers."

The answer surprised Mr. Silvers because "no one was even thinking about the Black Panthers, but Jimmy Baldwin knew that world."

Three years later, in the debut issue of The New York Review of Books, published on Feb. 1, 1963, F.W. Dupee reviewed Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time."

"Fred Dupee was critical of Jimmy's views about violence," Mr. Silvers said, adding that Mr. Dupee was a Henry James scholar with a radical background.

"This is, to me, the great challenge of editing. You have friends, writers you admire. You have a critic you admire. They criticize that friend. That is the test of an editor. You must publish critical work about your own contributors and the people you yourself admire. That is the test of editorial integrity."

Novelist Stewart O'Nan, who lives in Regent Square, stopped reading the New York Review of Books in the late 1990s.

"It seemed so damn grown-up that it became boring. I read more literary journals that are newer and more fun" such as The Southern Review, Post Road and his favorite, One Story. "You get it every month. They never have the same writer twice. That's out of Brooklyn. It's always new, and it's always good."

Although he has stopped reading it, Mr. O'Nan allowed that The New York Review of Books, "even at its most stodgy, is probably better than 95 percent of what's out there."

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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