Robert Silvers: New York’s Presiding Man of Letters

In October 1959, the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick complained in a now-famous Harper’s essay that book reviews had gone soft. “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene,” she wrote. “A universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.” Four years later, at Hardwick’s urging, the editor who commissioned that piece, Robert Silvers, founded the New York Review of Books. Long before he died this past March, at age 87, Silvers had made the New York Review the country’s best and most influential literary journal. Silvers edited the New York Review for 54 years, first in collaboration with Barbara Epstein, and then solo after Epstein died in 2006. Silvers did not go in for sweet, bland commendations. “Sad things can happen when an author chooses the wrong subject,” the novelist Wilfrid Sheed began memorably in a 1988 review of Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J.D. Salinger, an unauthorized biography. “First the author suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain.” That may be the greatest lede to a book review ever written.Story Continued Below The New York Review was the rare venture that married high literary ambition to smart financial stewardship. Its debut was timed to take advantage of a New York City press strike that shut down the New York Times Book Review, leaving publishers desperate for a venue to advertise new releases. Over the two decades that followed, advertisers targeted magazine buys increasingly to special-interest publications and away from general-interest weeklies like Life (1936-1972) and Saturday Review (1924-1986). The New York Review was a general-interest fortnightly, but from an advertising perspective, it was a special-interest magazine—its audience was book buyers—and that allowed it to stay solvent. Silvers kept overhead low by maintaining a tiny staff and doing nearly everything Continue Reading

The Fight to Save the New York Public Library

The main entrance to the New York Public Library in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)  As Scott Sherman first reported in these pages (“Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” November 30, 2011), the CLP would compromise the scholarly mission of the NYPL in numerous ways, including banishing nearly 3 million books to a storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey, from which it could take up to five days for requested items to be delivered to Forty-second Street. It would also disfigure an architectural treasure by demolishing the seven levels of century-old stacks beneath the Rose Reading Room to make way for a high-tech circulating library—a proposal that prompted historian David Nasaw to say, at a recent New School forum, “We’re being told that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards.” The many parts of the NYPL with innards in need of repair—the overburdened and underfunded eighty-seven branch libraries—may not receive a cent under the plan. It appears that the CLP would also starve two other research libraries: the Performing Arts Library—once an oasis and now a “dump,” according to a recent New York Times essay by Edmund Morris—and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which needs an infusion of funds to sustain its historic mission in Harlem. Sherman’s investigative reporting struck a nerve, generating extensive coverage in the Times (whose editorial board offered halfhearted support for the CLP on May 8), plus articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Daily News, the New York Post and other publications. On A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor brought his caustic satire to bear by musing that the Forty-second Street stacks will be demolished to make way for high-priced condos. Tom Stoppard, Salman Rushdie, Annie Proulx, Art Spiegelman, Amitav Ghosh, David Byrne and Colum McCann are among the 1,500 people who have signed a protest Continue Reading

What ‘The New York Times’ Missed in Its Piece about Norman Podhoretz

On March 17, The New York Times published an article by John Leland: “Norman Podhoretz Still Picks Fights and Drops Names.”1 Podhoretz, now 87, showed himself to be indefatigable. He told the same story he has been telling for decades (a rather good story, let it be said, and one which does not vary with successive tellings). It chronicles his ascent from the Brooklyn streets to the editorship of Commentary and prominence as a political and social critic. It also describes his break with old friends, still described almost lovingly. Why not—where would Podhoretz be if he could not claim as many past friendships, past enmities?2 The persons recalled by Podhoretz are serious figures, from Hannah Arendt to Lionel Trilling. He describes a milieu of continuous argument and even more continuous drinking. The New York intellectuals, as he recounts it, lived in alcoholic excitement. Moving relentlessly from one party to the next, they were intensely attentive to their peers’ achievements, particularly if they could be verbally diminished.3 But the article poses a problem. The New York intellectuals, as they were termed, were the persons who edited and wrote for Commentary and Partisan Review, and later Dissent and The New York Review of Books. They operated in a larger historical setting, about which the Times article is loudly silent. The piece asserts that the New York intellectuals exerted large influence in the ’70s and ’80s—but by then New York was everywhere. College and university campuses had become distinctly cosmopolitan, the local cultural and political small journal an indispensable ticket of admission to a national theater of ideas. Commentary and Partisan Review became their own monuments; Dissent had an aging public. The period in which the New York intellectuals, their books and journals, had the most profound influence extended from the 1930s to the 1960s.4 When the Partisan Review was founded by William Continue Reading

Blogger writes about gentrification of NYC in ‘Vanishing New York’: review

If you've lived in New York City for any period of time, you've likely seen the place change. People move in and out of the city, as if walking through a revolving door. Similarly, restaurants open to fanfare only to die a short time later. But in the last decade or so, the most striking change happening in Manhattan is the "hyper-gentrification" across formerly unique neighborhoods, creating a gleaming sky-high suburb for the 1 percent. "It's cupcakes, cronuts and hundred-dollar doughnuts dipped in 24-karat gold (yes, this exists — in Williamsburg)," writes author Jeremiah Moss in his new book, "Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul." The book is an expansion of his popular blog of the same name, where Moss has long chronicled the demise of beloved, if gritty, New York establishments. In the book, Moss tells an intriguing story that is an indictment of local leaders who ushered in a sterilized iteration of Gotham through public policies favoring the wealthy. One example of Manhattan's suburbanization: the number of Starbucks outposts. The coffee giant has 307 locations on the island alone, one for every 5.5 blocks. In fact, walk down the streets of Greenwich Village or through Times Square and you'll see the same national retailers that occupy shopping malls all over the country: Olive Garden, Applebee's and Outback Steak House; J. Crew, the Gap and American Eagle Outfitters. "...the city is becoming a dull landscape of Anywhere, USA, in which New York looks less like New York and more like downtown Denver, Dallas, Toledo," Moss writes. "Same towers, same coffee chains, same mega-mall typefaces and cinnamon-bun compulsions, buildings made of shiny surfaces that face each other admiring themselves in their neighbors' empty reflections." New Yorkers may find the book is a sad elegy to a city that is no longer recognizable. "Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul" (Dey Street Books), by Jeremiah Continue Reading

Playboy, Penthouse, New York Review of Books axed from military stores amid falling sales

Playboy, Penthouse and other sex-themed magazines will no longer be sold at U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores — a move described by the stores' operators as a business decision based on falling sales and not a result of recent pressure from anti-pornography activists. The 48 "adult sophisticate" magazines being dropped are among 891 periodicals that will no longer be offered by the exchange service at its stores on U.S. military bases worldwide. Other titles getting the ax include English Garden, SpongeBob Comics, the New York Review of Books and the Saturday Evening Post. Morality in Media, a Washington-based anti-pornography group, called the decision "a great victory" in its campaign against sexual exploitation in the military, and said it would continue to urge operators of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps exchanges to follow suit. Chris Ward, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, said the cutbacks — which took effect Wednesday — would reduce the space allotted to magazines by 33 percent and free up room for more popular products. He noted that news stand sales of most consumer magazines were falling steadily as online alternatives proliferated. Sales of the "adult sophisticate" category of magazines at the exchanges had declined 86 percent since 1998, he said. Hundreds of other magazines will continue to be sold at the exchanges. The current top-sellers are People, Men's Health and Cosmopolitan. Though many types of periodicals are among the 891 being dropped, the adult magazines posed particular difficulties, Ward said. Under federal regulations, they required special handling and placement in order to ensure they were properly displayed out of reach of children. In some respects, the exchange service's decision will have limited impact. Military personnel will still be able to bring explicit magazines onto their bases that they purchased elsewhere, and will have access to online pornography. Continue Reading

‘Mad Men’ and the end of the American Dream: A great show spells the decline of a great nation

Aside from his multiple infidelities, prodigious drinking and having the personality of a mud wall, what finally caused Betty Draper to separate from Don Draper, her husband and the protagonist of the wildly popular series "Mad Men," was a clutch of Heineken beer. As Don Draper knew she would, Betty purchased the beer for their home because he had her infuriatingly pigeonholed as the typical upwardly mobile housewife of the early 1960s. The American Dream, it turns out, is about 5% alcohol. The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn explains the show's appeal by saying it "represents fantasies, or memories, of significant potency." For me, the memory - now, alas, a fantasy - is the assumption that Americans would get richer and richer and that, if you were an adman or a client, it made sense to market products to the affluent. Heineken, imported and thus hardly prole in origin, oddly represents an America that used to be and we may never see again.Wall Street Journal article about Procter & Gamble. This iconic American company - Ivory, Tide, Bounty, Gillette - has introduced a dish soap at a bargain price. It's called Gain, and it represents P&G's attempt to attract less affluent customers, not out of the goodness of its corporate heart but because the middle class is shrinking.Betty Drapers of the new suburbs - a labyrinth of ersatz drives, lanes, paths and mews - were becoming richer and richer, and they would pay more for a premium product. These products were the supermarket version of the space program, which began around the same time. There were simply no limits. Mayor Bloomberg broods on his radio program of the unemployed rioting in the streets. The governor of Ohio, John Kasich, told a group of journalists, "I'm worried about this country. For the first time in my life, I'm worried about this country." A kind of depression has set in, not - or not yet - an economic one but one of the spirit.Washington to shrink in importance.Costco, buys the Continue Reading

New York Today: Free and cheap events, January 2 2011

Tunes for tots. Brooklyn-based musician Miss Nina entertains toddlers 3 and under with her signature pink guitar. 11 a.m. Free. Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St. (718) 246-0200. Runaway chicks. Catch a screening of "Chicken Run," a Claymation film about chickens trying to escape a British barnyard. 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. $8-$11. Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, at 95th St. (212) 864-5400. HOP TO IT. Get the inside scoop on the famed Brooklyn Brewery's expansion and learn about its storied past with a 20-minute tour of the new space. 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Free. 79 N. 11th St., Brooklyn. (718) 486-7422. "Treasure Trove." Examine artifacts left by Jewish immigrants living on the lower East Side and create a mezuzah to bring home. 1 p.m. $15 per family. Museum at Eldridge Street, 12 Eldridge St. (212) 219-0888. Jazz for kids. Enjoy smooth tunes by the talented children of the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra, directed by David O'Rourke. 1 p.m. $5 suggested donation. Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th St. (212) 576-2232. Gizmos & gadgets. Visit this science playground for free on Sunday mornings. Continuing exhibits include "1001 Inventions," featuring gadgets by Muslim scientists from the seventh through 17th centuries. 10-11 a.m. Free admission. New York Hall of Science, 47-01 111th St., Queens. (718) 699-0005. "Beauty and the beard." Cellist Steven Isserlis and other artists introduce kids to works by Brahms. Narrated by Judy Kuhn. 3 p.m. $18. 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave. (212) 415-5500. Free access. Get free admission to the Brooklyn Museum. Take the opportunity to check out artist Fred Tomaselli's unique hybrid paintings and collages, closing after today. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free admission. Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway. (718) 638-5000. Snowy creations. Design and decorate a sparkling snowflake. 1, 2 and 3 p.m. $6. Staten Island Children's Museum, 1000 Richmond Terrace.(718) 273-2060. "Ceremony of carols." The Cathedral Choir of Continue Reading

Government needs to step up testing of medical marijuana

BILL: Dave, did you see that a shop called Cannabis Café opened in Portland, Oregon last week - the first-ever marijuana cafe in the US? "We hope to have classes, seminars, even a Cannabis Community College," said Madeline Martinez, Oregon's executive director of NORML, a group pushing for marijuana legalization. DR. DAVE:  As long as you have the so-called “new fake I.D.” of a medical marijuana prescription, you get to sit in a plush dining room and order specially prepared food and beverages while you listen to Kenny G play blues sax on Bose surround-sound. BILL: But, if the pot is actually prescribed, say, for glaucoma and to relieve pain in terminal patients, isn’t calling it a ”fake I.D.” a bit over the top? DR. DAVE: Bill, please don’t swallow all their hype. Do you see any optometrist’s eye-wear dispensary hosting a pot café? Or any pharmacist opening a boutique restaurant for patients to enjoy taking Vicodin for pain? On the same day that the Obama administration wrote new guidelines to curb enforcement in states with medical marijuana laws, the American Medical Association called for marijuana to undergo the same medical research the government would use to legalize any other prescribed medication. BILL: Wait a minute, you mean these states are allowing docs to write prescriptions for marijuana, but without the same research done for other pain medications? DR. DAVE: That's correct in California, Oregon and all of the 14 states which have legalized “medical” marijuana use. That is what the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, with their great research budgets, are supposed to do for the country as a whole. So far, they have not conducted research into the health benefits of marijuana. Marijuana has been regulated by federal law enforcement through having it labeled as a Schedule 1 Drug - like Ecstasy, cocaine and other drugs WITHOUT medical Continue Reading

140 authors expected at annual Brooklyn Book Festival

In a world where e-books are being read on iPhones, and novels are downloaded to laptops, is there still room for those ancient volumes made of paper and held together with thread or glue? You know, the ones called hardcovers and paperbacks. You betcha! You'll find proof positive at Borough Hall on Sunday, when the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival gets underway. More than 150 vendors will be there selling books. And 140 authors will be on hand to talk about everything from politics and social change to spicy fiction. Special events are planned for those who may think books will soon appear only on plasma screens. "We think it's our responsibility to nurture new readers and new writers," said Johnny Temple, chairman of the Brooklyn Literary Council and publisher of Akashic Books. The festival includes "Words of the Future," readings by students from Brooklyn College and Medgar Evers College. For those young whippersnappers who require further convincing that books are more than those things needed for boring homework assignments, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and Ian MacKaye of The Evens will talk about the parallel worlds of independent music and book publishing. "Thurston Moore and Ian MacKaye will draw in young people and create a bridge to literature," Temple said. No doubt, Urban Word NYC's top teen poets will create bridges, too, as they present individual and group poems. Longtime book lovers who require no bridges will have plenty to see and hear:  Brooklynite Walter Mosley, author of the best-selling series featuring the detective Easy Rawlins, will be at the festival to receive its 2008 Best of Brooklyn Inc. Award.  Author Joan Didion and other frequent contributors to The New York Review of Books will discuss the challenges facing the next American President.  Authors and U.S. Reps. Linda and Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats from California and the first sisters ever to serve in Congress at the same time, will give their take on the presidential Continue Reading

Battle has become a clash of class – and Hillary Clinton proves she has none

So here we are now with a fight for the Democratic nomination that increasingly has the charm of mud-wrestling. We are supposed to believe that Sen. Barack Obama hates you if you live in a small town. At the same time we are supposed to believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton - who have banked more than $100 million since he left office - are more regular than Bingo Night. What started out as one of the most thrilling races in the history of any party, one that was supposed to be about race and gender and new ideas and possibilities, has suddenly become one about class. Or, in this case, no class. Here was one of Hillary Clinton's spokesmen the other day, a self-appointed spokesman for just plain folks named Phil Singer, responding to Obama's remarks about bitter Americans clinging to guns and religion: "Sen. Obama's speeches won't hide his condescending views of Americans living in small towns." Does even a flack like Singer, sounding like he is reading from William Kristol's giddy attack on Obama in The Times, actually believe this? Does anybody? Do they actually believe that the first African-American candidate to get this close to his party's nomination got here because his message only resonates with readers of The New York Review of Books? It is all kind of wonderful, especially on the 61st anniversary of Jackie Robinson running out to play a baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making April 15, 1947, as much a point of light in the civil rights movement in this country as anything that would come after it. Obama is supposed to be the elitist of this campaign and Sen. Clinton is a shot-and-beer girl who remembers hunting with her grandpa and remembering just in time for the Pennsylvania primary how devoted she is to the Second Amendment. Now that we know how much Sen. Clinton loves guns, it can't be long before she changes her Bosnia story again and tells us that when the snipers opened up on her that day, she started firing back. Continue Reading