Acquiring knowledge serendipitously is a mostly a joyful happenstance—much like taking a different route to a destination to an oft travelled-to destination. Anyway, I had not known about Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary, The Fifty Year Argument until I saw a reference to a review jauntily entitled “There’s a Lot of Gray Hair in Martin Scorsese’s Documentary on The New York Review of Books” in Vogue (having a grasshopper mind I immediately wondered how many people who read Vogue read the New York Review?) The film’s subject is of courseThe New York Review of Books, the world’s preeminent literary publication, and it’s beatific founding and continuing editor, Robert Silver. I read Nathaniel Heller’s essay and requested the film from HBO. Even as a I watched the The Fifty Year Argument I thought that Heller had viewed a film different than I that which I was watching. His critique read like a judgment on a bottle of wine based on the meal it was served with.
“The origin of the Review has been documented and it should suffice it to cite Robert Silver”When we started the paper we weren’t seeking to be part of the establishment. We were seeking quite the opposite…to examine the workings and truthfulness of establishments,whether political or cultural.”
There a number of riveting snippets—James Baldwin pointing out that “black people didn’t event the nigger, white people did.” And a youthful and beguiling Susan Sontag asking (well actually, telling) Norman Mailer his use of the word ‘lady was offensive. And Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show have entertaining verbal dust up with Mailer accusing Vidal of connecting him to Charles Manson. And Zoe Heller charmingly explaining that the Review educated her adding it probably was the case for others “even though they would never admit it.” And Darryl Pickney talking about his 13 year old self riding in a car on the way to Disneyland,sitting between his two sisters, reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. You get the idea, yes?
It should also be noted that one of the impetuses for the Review was Elizabeth Hardwick’s famous (in the literary world) 1959 Harper’s piece The Decline of Book Reviewing:
For the world of books, for readers and writers, the torpor of the New York Times Book Review is more affecting. There come to mind all those high-school English teachers, those faithful librarians and booksellers, those trusting suburbanites, those bright young men and women in the provinces, all those who believe in the judgment of the Times and who need its direction. The worst result of its decline is that it acts as a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally. The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday “Book Pages.” (The New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, the news and opinion weeklies, the literary magazines all devote a good deal of space and thought to the reviewing of books. The often awkward and the always variable results should not go unremarked. However, in these magazines the reviews are only a part of the claim upon the reader’s attention, and the peculiar disappointments of the manner in which books are sometimes treated cannot be understood without a close study of each magazine as a whole.
Is it 1959 all over again?
And finally, the New York Review was from the beginning steadfastly against the Bushist Iraqi adventure. To its everlasting credit…
Currently reading Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (Ecco)