On Robert Silvers

Writing well is a risky, lonely undertaking. In a world intent on finding new ways to be stupid, cruel, and irrational, the defense of intelligence, decency, and reason can seem futile. Remembering Bob, I remember how he used to end those phone calls: “And so we push ahead.”


One recurring problem for Bob was the books. He was haunted by the books “piling up” in our office—and our futile efforts to control the tide. When a writer told him about a book—or else he saw a mention of it somewhere—he’d often stand up and bellow, “The perfect book for X. Do we have it? Can we get it? Can I see it?” The first person to walk into the office in the morning would usually find book reviews cut up, titles circled, with little notes. “Get soonest,” or else “Show me.” On weekends, he would sometimes get up and amble around, pulling out books from the stacks by the window and yelling at whoever was on that shift. “Poems by Octavio Paz, what could be more important?!” “Cyber-security—it couldn’t be more important.” Most things “couldn’t be more important” for Bob. When reassured that a suitable list of reviewers had been drawn up, he would sit back down and resume editing. Once he went to the accountant’s office to resolve a tax issue and came back with half a dozen books he’d swiped from her desk. “Why did no one tell me about these?!”

That Bob edited so much, and so well, has meant that to many he seemed to be a kind of otherworldly figure. But the truth was that he worked very hard, and everyone around him tried to follow his example, or simply had to. During my first few late shifts, at age 23, I couldn’t keep up with his pace, and remember the great shame of chugging Diet Cokes in the office at midnight to stay awake, while Bob, then 84, clamored for news reports and transcripts and detailed descriptions of various apps he had seen mentioned on TV. He was fascinated by the latest technology and always wanted explanations far more comprehensive than any staff member could provide. Though he usually got the gist. On Snapchat: “Oh I see. You send a picture with the caption: here is a naked picture of myself.”

The Review is often described as a kind of haven for writers. It’s true that he took extraordinary care of those who wrote for him. His dedication to the magazine could also create its own kind of comfort for those in the office. I went to the Review the day after my grandfather died, and the day after a breakup that nearly tore me in two. It was reassuring to dip into Bob’s steady rhythm for a few hours—sending books out, getting pieces in, editing, putting together the paper. On the day after the last election, I came in to see Bob sitting at his desk, editing. Most of the staff was crying or whispering in a corner somewhere. Bob was silent. I called a friend—a photographer who had known Bob for many years. How could he remain so calm? I asked. “It’s what he does,” she said. “He was like that after September 11. To me it’s comforting. Our lives continue.”

—Madeleine Schwartz

All day long, writers called into the office, and Bob talked with them about their articles one after another after another. I have never heard anyone speak so articulately, with such well-informed insight, humor, and grace, on such an astonishingly wide range of topics: politics, visual art, fads, obscure historical periods, dissident novelists, classical music, evolutionary biology, war. It was dizzying; you could hear him verbally midwifing the magazine into being.

—Alexander Nemser

When I first encountered the New York Review, in a bin of magazines the college post office disposed of each week while I worked a summer job, it felt like a message in a bottle, a vision of politics and culture thrown overboard sometime in the early 1960s, which just happened to wash ashore twice a month, unbidden, with brilliant essays on the latest books. When, five years later, I told friends I was working at the magazine, they would reply “that must be an amazing education.” It was, though not of the sort one imagined.

Bob Silvers was not an easy man to learn from, and one absorbed his lessons by osmosis, if at all. The first task was to master his handwriting, since much of the job involved printing out emails and typing up his handwritten replies. Bob’s script was basically inscrutable, somehow both loopy and crabbed. He would “teach” new assistants by pulling them aside for one in-depth lesson, where he would point to each rune and pronounce the represented letter—as if one might learn the principles of nature by listening closely enough to an oracle. Instead, the way to learn Bob’s handwriting was by picking up on his habitual responses, his favorite words and phrases, eventually his entire patterns of thought. To assist Bob, effectively, was to internalize this entire way of being. Taking dictation, one could begin to feel like a medium for some celestial force. The true sign of mastery was that when Bob was busy, one could cook up a suggested email response, or an entire memo to send an author, that he would later sign off on without hardly changing a word. After leaving the magazine, I found I could still consult this force, a ready guide to every epistolary puzzle, a master of etiquette, always prepared with a word to encourage but not overwhelm—and forever impatient with obscurity.

Bob could also be an angry god, and his piques were the butt of jokes for generations of aspiring literary twentysomethings in New York. At the time, these stories felt like a way to cut the grand old man down to size. Now that he is gone, they were also, I realize, odd expressions of endearment, ways to confirm to oneself that he was, in fact, human. When I first heard the news, I found that Bob was such an indomitable force in my mind that I had to remind myself that he was actually alive in order to believe that he could also die. He will be celebrated for his impossibly demanding standards, his Stakhanovite work ethic, his demonic longevity. Now, I find myself returning, with surprising fondness, to his moments of dudgeon, and those of revealing weakness.

Once, after assigning a review of the Kelly Reichardt film Wendy and Lucy, a DVD screener arrived and Bob asked me to put it on. He would often do this when we ran reviews of movies—and let the film play, like the cable news that was constantly chattering in the background, while he returned to editing. This time, something was different. Bob kept trying to edit, but to my surprise he couldn’t stop himself from looking back at the screen. As Reichardt’s unassuming film about unemployment and loss came to its quiet denouement, Bob wasn’t editing at all. He was rapt. His novels from mid-century were stored away in locked cabinets, rarely consulted; when given a work about Marxism, he paged through, exclaimed “All the old arguments!” and then threw it in the outbox. But he could still be caught, as if unawares, by the power of a work of both style and politics—the exact mix that had first set him down his own path in the 1940s and 1950s. That’s what made him a truly great editor: his openness, even despite himself, to surprise. It’s also what made him human, and how I like to remember him now.

—Charles Petersen

I didn’t work for Bob Silvers nearly as long as other people did, but in that office one learned quickly. The job involved trying to anticipate everything he would do or think. This was both easier and harder than it sounds, since he was somehow more habitual and more mercurial than anyone else I’ve met. Some tasks (collecting thrown pencils and empty bottles of Diet Coke) I did every day; some (finding a bookbinder to repair a Sherlock Holmes volume, held together with rubber bands, that Bob treasured as a child) only once. His editorial style (which is to say his way of life) perfectly balanced self-involvement and self-effacement. His time was too important to waste, but almost always because he wanted to be doing something for someone else. The New York Review, founded in a brilliant stroke of opportunism during a newspaper strike, owed its existence to perfect timing: Bob was lucky, but the Review was, too. It is hard to imagine anyone will ever work the way he did again.

—Tim Barker

Once on a late shift, over the hum of the nightly news, I heard rustling coming from Bob’s desk behind me. It began inconspicuously—the familiar shuffle of manuscripts and galleys—and then became feverish. Finally I turned around to see Bob wielding his Columbia Encyclopedia in one hand and a tape dispenser in the other, negotiating the weight of the heavy volume as he indelicately repaired the torn, royal blue twenty-year-old cover.

On another occasion, while he was on a conference call, Bob held out the phone expectantly and when I took it from him, unsure of what I was being asked to do, I saw that he had, without my noticing, wrapped many layers of tape over the speaking end of the phone. As I began to unpeel them, he smiled and whispered conspiratorially, “I didn’t want them to hear us.”

Every other week, Bob assembled a draft of the cover for the new issue by taping scaled-down images to a yellow pad. He once held out his hand (a recurring occurrence) and asked for “our little guy,” by which he meant a miniature Putin.

Death has a way of making things symbolic, but Bob was never a fan of metaphors. His encounters with tape stand out not so much because they represent the way that he bare-handedly constructed the Review, but rather because they served as examples of his messiness and mischief. Perched behind unsteady towers of books and armed with tape and bright green scissors, his cardigan often bearing some ancient spill, Bob looked less like the literary giant he was and more like a crafty child—delighted, proud, and occasionally devious. That’s how I’ll remember Bob.

—Liza Batkin

I worked as one of Bob’s assistants when I was in my twenties and he was in his eighties. Somehow, he invited me, and all of us, to feel like peers. Not in wisdom, or editorial judgment, or knowledge, of course—he was towering in all those ways—but in curiosity. There was no subject that didn’t interest Bob. He was unshockable, unembarrassable. If you were prepared to argue well for it, any idea was a legitimate area of inquiry.

I learned this lesson the hard way—because Bob, for all his breadth of mind, even impishness, was tough. He demanded that everyone who worked in his office be energetic and assured and busy. One day he heard me on the phone with a book publicist, telling them not to bother sending a book to us—I think it was a glossy photo book of pets and their owners—because it wasn’t the sort of thing we usually covered in the NYRB. When I hung up, he bellowed at me from behind his huge semi-circular desk, which always reminded me of the helm of a ship, that I should never tell anyone not to send a book to us, that we wanted to see everything, because who knows how it might come into a piece?

I took note. It was one of the many important editing lessons I learned from Bob: that to produce something serious, you have to have a big appetite—for travel, being out and about in the city, seeing movies and art and opera, talking to writers about their far-flung interests, and, crucially, taking the measure of the culture in the different kinds of books that erupt from it each season. High, low, human, canine: you must sift through it all. Judgment comes second. First there is hunger for the world.

I think many of us who worked for him thought Bob would never die. He was so omnipresent, so vigorous. Everything Bob touched was transformed by his maniacal energy: manuscripts tattooed with his tight, insistent scrawl and splashes of coffee, as if he had spent all night wrestling with them (he had); the metal outbox on his desk, which, when we arrived in the morning, bristled with letters, newspaper clippings, editorial memos, books to send out for review, and instructions on how to dispatch them to the tens of writers he was in touch with daily; the ziggurats of books that teetered on Bob’s desk and all around the office, out of which he might pluck a volume and with his precision radar for cant read a damningly bad sentence (or the reverse—a good one, containing the grain of the book’s argument). And there was Bob himself, elegant in a handmade suit and trailing scarf, gusting into the office, and before he even came through the door beginning to issue commands. In my memory, Bob—tall and strong and zestful—will always be in motion.

—Sasha Weiss

I landed at the New York Review of Books after washing out of graduate school, where I had immersed myself—in a morbid, fetishistic, far from scholarly manner—in a certain identifiable but not necessarily easy-to-classify strain of mid-twentieth-century American writing. Joan Didion. Susan Sontag. Mary McCarthy. Robert Lowell. Norman Mailer. None of my instructors was interested in those writers, and the truth is that I had very little of interest to say about them. I didn’t so much want to study their work as escape into their company, to trade the anxious, careerist, theory-ridden world of mid-’90s academia for a more worldly, more charismatic, more truly literary milieu.

On paper, my veneration of those figures might have made me a perfect fit for the Review. And it’s true that, late at night, I would sometimes wander into the storeroom where the back issues were kept. There was no digital archive then, only a tactile record of bygone arguments: the still-crisp lines of David Levine’s caricatures, the blocky authority of the byline font. Those bylines! A pantheon of independent intellect. An unparalleled record of recent history.

I drifted into the office on a tide of nostalgia, only to discover that nostalgia had no place at the Review. You could sometimes coax the editors, Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, into a moment or two of reminiscence, but the movement of the Review was relentlessly forward, scrambling toward the next issue and the one after that. The guiding principle was continuity, and the method was improvisation. The paper (as Bob often called it) had started in 1963 as a sort of pop-up, when a hunch and a hope about the prospects for a first-rate American literary review collided with the opportunity offered by the New York newspaper strike. By 1997, the Review was very much an institution, but it hadn’t lost that initial seat-of-the-pants feeling, the sense that Bob and Barbara were making it up as they went along, running on the ragged pulse of serendipity rather than by the tidy clockwork of design.

There were no meetings, no brainstorming sessions, no market research, no mission statements, no branding. There was Bob at his desk and Barbara around the corner at hers, pencils scratching in the margins of “faxable 14s” (manuscripts printed sideways on legal-sized sheets). Assistants would carry notes between them, galleys would go out by messenger or FedEx and copy would come in by mail, disc, or fax, in at least one case written by hand.

Bob toiled late into the night, seven days a week, his young assistants (like me) working in staggered shifts to keep up with him. I was in the office with him one midnight when the phone rang. He wasn’t at his desk, so I asked if I might take a message. “It’s Susan Sontag,” she said. “He’ll know why I called.” It was his birthday. It was also New Year’s Eve.

At the time it all seemed marvelous and strange, and it was possible to regard Bob’s workaholic habits with amusement. Or, when they upended your plans, with dismay. But he was teaching everyone who worked for and with him a serious lesson. Bob stayed in the office those nights coaxing pieces toward greater clarity, keener insight, and sounder argument. The standards for assigning and publishing were deceptively simple: Who is the best person to write the most interesting piece about this? Is this piece as informative, as accessible, as scintillating (a favorite Bob word) as it can be? Meeting those standards was endless work. And also pure delight.

Bob was a happy Sisyphus, pushing his stone up the hill each day. When the piece was ready to go to proofs, he would get on the phone with the author. “Well [Joan; Garry; Vidia; Lizzie], it’s a marvelous piece, and we’re so glad to have it.” It was thrilling to listen in on those calls. The first time I received one will always be the high point of my professional life.

The point wasn’t flattery, though Bob, who devoted his life to writers, knew how much they needed encouragement. He wasn’t prone to grandiose pronouncements about the importance of “our little paper,” but he knew that it mattered and he knew why. Thinking clearly is difficult. Writing well is a risky, lonely undertaking. In a world intent on finding new ways to be stupid, cruel, and irrational, the defense of intelligence, decency, and reason can seem futile. Remembering Bob, I remember how he used to end those phone calls: “And so we push ahead.”

—A. O. Scott

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