New York Review of Books reaches 50
I am just back from a couple of days in New York. I can sense some of you thinking some wry thoughts about this jetsetting life: eurocrat in Brussels one week, then the Big Apple the next . . . not exactly the hardworking academic image you've been trying to give.
I see the point, but I would say this was all a bit punishingly mad, not glam. I'm not allowed (nor would I want) to skip any teaching, so it's a question of fitting five days work into the three that are left etc etc ... BUT, the fact is that I wouldnt have missed the New York trip for the world.
It was the celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the New York Review of Books. There was a party (filmed by regular reader Martin Scorsese, yes honest), and I was giving a mini lecture at the anniversary symposium.
The New York Review is an extraordinary magazine. It was founded in 1963 in the middle of a journalists' strike which took the New York Times Book Review off the news stands (that's a bit like the story of the London Review which was launched during the Times strike which temporarily removed the TLS). It has been edited ever since the beginning, for all 50 years, by Bob Silvers (Barbara Epstein, the other founding editor, died in 2006).
At the symposium, a group of longstanding contributors -- from Joan Didion to Daniel Mendelsohn, (I was very much the new kid on the block, having done my first review only in 2007) -- reflected on the Review and on their past contributions to it. I didnt feel I had got much distance on mine, so I decided to look at how Classics in general had fared over the paper's history.
Some of this was quite lighthearted. I played that silly but amusing game of entering key terms into the on-line Review search engine and seeing how often they came up. It turned out that a quartet of leading Romans (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Virgil and Ovid) appeared between them at least once an issue. (I remember Stefan Collini trying this with the online edition of the new DNB -- particularly memorably with the phrase "suffer fools gladly", which it emerged a significant number of those commemorated in the DNB didn't.)
But I was also keen to look at the presence of Classics in the magazine a bit harder. There is an interesting pair of reviews in the current issue, one by Jeremy Waldron reflecting on the continuing importance of classical texts, one by Stephen Greenblatt elegaically predicting the end of our obsession with the Greeks and Romans. But I got most out of the embeddedness of classical references and classical thinking in the very first issue (of which everyone got a free celebratory reprint). This went from a brilliant review by Jonathan Miller of John Updike's The Centaur (he complained about the classical pedantry of the book, and started with the great line: “This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features”) to a whole gamut of classical allusions and comparisons. Susan Sontag, for example, compared our reading of Simone Weil to Alcibiades relationship with Socrates. Robert Lowell told readers that the poet Robert Frost went to sleep with a copy of Catullus on his bedside table.
And I took it back in the end to the basic point I made in the Review last year, that:
"if we were to amputate the classics from the modern world, it would mean more than closing down some university departments and consigning Latin grammar to the scrap heap. It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture—and a dark future of misunderstanding."
Anyway I was pleased enough with how it went, and pleased too -- lets be practical -- that I left New York before it got snowbounds. Else I really would have had big problems this end.