Robert (Bob) Silvers, who died this week, was the greatest editor of the elite American media. The magazine he founded and edited for more than 50 years, the New York Review of Books, is the voice of liberal intelligentsia in America.
But there’s much more to him than book reviews. Silvers had a keen perception for news, a superb sense of timing and a unique ability to recruit high-quality, professional writers in their fields.
His biweekly magazine, bolstered with a blog in recent years, was and still is a fountainhead to gratify curiosity in almost any area – from American politics to Indian culture and nuclear physics. There is no better source to feel America’s political and cultural pulse.
In the months since Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, Silvers published the columns of Masha Gessen, the American-Russian journalist who wrote a biography of Vladimir Putin (“The Man Without a Face”) a few years ago. Now she has given her readers advice for living in an autocratic regime and a fascinating analysis of the similarity between Russia’s president and his new equivalent in the White House. Gessen’s articles were among the most outstanding and most quoted after Trump’s ascent.
Gessen was merely the latest in a gallery of writers who contributed to the magazine, always providing an original angle and with perfect timing. He sent Joan Didion – one of the greatest American nonfiction writers – to write about war and terror in El Salvador in 1982, and six years later to document George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis. She hesitated, claiming she had nothing to say about internal politics, until she succumbed. This week, in a remembrance for him in the New Yorker, she wrote: “Bob was without exception my favorite person to work with. The work I did for him was the best I ever did.”
“He allowed me to find myself,” she wrote. “He did this by ignoring my doubts about myself, by encouraging me to be a better writer than I knew or felt myself to be. I can’t imagine what my work would have become without Bob.”
“John [Dunne, Didion’s late husband] and I felt he was the best editor in America because he gave us the freedom to do things we would not have done otherwise,” she wrote.
I met Silvers several times over the last few years. I came to ask for his advice as an editor, of my father’s age. But in this matter he did not display generosity and quickly diverted the conversation to his favorite subjects: Israeli politics; the history of his Jewish family that came from Eastern Europe to New York via Edirne in Turkey; the excellent writers he recruited; the New York Review’s history.
The miraculous magazine had been born by chance, taking advantage of an opportunity during the months-long strike at the New York Times in 1963. Book publishers had difficulty promoting sales when the most important book supplement in New York failed to appear. Silvers, who was an editor in one of the publishing houses, teamed up with close friend Barbara Epstein and two other partners and set up an independent magazine for book reviews. To set the bar high, they recruited Norman Mailer, already a celebrated author. The project caught on and continued to stand out even when the New York Times strike ended.
Epstein died in 2006 and since then Silvers edited the magazine alone, with a small staff of young assistants in a book-crammed office in the West Village. Its circulation wasn’t huge in U.S. terms – about 140,000 printed copies and 25,000 digital subscribers. But it remained profitable due to its predominance in the academic book publications’ advertising market. Instead of advertising separately in scientific periodicals for each discipline, university publishers could reach readers of all disciplines in one place.
“When will you come to Israel?” I asked him, and he avoided the question with a vague promise for a future visit that was never kept. Silvers visited Israel once, at the end of 1969 – in the midst of the War of Attrition – with his friend, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. They met Prime Minister Golda Meir and the meeting remained fresh in Silvers’ mind dozens of years later.
“She was angry with me, because I published Isi Stone (I. F. Stone, one of the American left’s most important journalists, who criticized Israel). She sent me to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek for a conversation with her good friend, [Mapam leader] Ya’akov Hazan. I wasn’t convinced,” he said.
This week, I found this trip documented in the book of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence, “Building: Letters 1960-1975.”
“Bob is coming to Israel with me, as you know, towards the end of the month,” he wrote to his friend Noam Chomsky on December 18, 1969. “I propose to let him meet Amos Oz and like-minded persons here – the Israeli intellectuals you speak of are perfectly sane, in spite of the fact that the attacks on Israel in the Times and elsewhere seem to me and to them grossly unfair.”
In an interview to New York Magazine a few years ago, Silvers said Meir had asked him at that meeting about his impression of Israel. “I said, ‘I come from a Zionist family, and I’ve seen, as I expected, remarkable accomplishment in Israel – in agriculture, in education, in technology, in helping people to start new lives. But I do keep asking myself about what happened to the Palestinians who lived here and the Palestinians who are now living under military occupation. And it’s very hard for me to reconcile the two.’ And she said, ‘We’re not an occupying power, an aggressive power. It’s like Pakistan and the break with India. People thought they had to leave and form a different society, have their own country, defend themselves.’ And I said, ‘Is that really the way you want Israel to be seen? As a kind of Pakistan?’ She thought and said, ‘No, I want to say that we’re a moral people, as concerned about the Palestinian people as anybody else.’ And then she said, ‘Isaiah, what do you think?’”
“He said, ‘Military occupation. Seldom a good thing. Seldom works out. Shouldn’t go on and on.’”
Silvers dealt a lot with the Israeli-Palestine conflict and published some of the Israeli left’s most outstanding writers over the years: Amos Elon, Avishai Margalit, David Grossman, David Shulman.
In August 2001, he published Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” which was the first to doubt Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton’s narrative, which placed the responsibility for the failure fully on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. A year later, historian Benny Morris’ interview with Barak, who spoke about the Arabs’ deceptive nature, appeared in the New York Review (“Camp David and After: An Exchange”).
One of the last editions, which Silvers still edited, carried Margalit’s review of Amos Oz’s novel “Judas.” The current edition has an article about S.Y. Agnon, “The Great Genius of Jewish Literature,” on the occasion of the new anthology of his works in English.
One question Silvers adamantly refused to answer in all the meetings and interviews with him, even at an advanced age, was who would take over from him and edit the magazine – one of the most important and influential positions in U.S. media and culture. In the past, the names of critic and essayist Louis Menand and historian Ian Buruma were mentioned as possible candidates. Another candidate whom Silvers had groomed, philosopher Jonathan Lieberson, died suddenly many years ago.
Now this candidacy is preoccupying America’s intellectual elite, which is wondering who might be able to step into Bob Silvers’ enormous shoes.