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The Ma and Pa of the Intelligentsia

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Can the Review hold its own in this newly transfigured literary landscape? The talent is there. As the old generation—Theodore Draper, Isaiah Berlin, Noel Annan—dies off, a new generation of critical thinkers has emerged to take its place. Mark Danner, Tim Judah, and Timothy Garton Ash, three of the Review’s veteran political commentators, are only in their forties or early fifties, as are Tim Parks and Daniel Mendelsohn, two of its most able critics.

And the Review is more than a magazine, more than a collection of talented writers and editors; it’s a world of its own. The combative letters column; the bookish personals; the pages and pages of publishers’ ads; even the real-estate listings for country homes and flats, which define the geography of the Review’s sophisticated readership (Paris, London, Tuscany, New York, San Francisco, Boston): Combine these elements and you have a distinctive identity composed of idiosyncratic customs, habits, styles—in other words, a culture.

What will become of its inhabitants? For now, Bob Silvers is managing to put out the paper on his own. At 76, he shows no sign of slowing down—or of delegating responsibility to anyone else. No likely successor waits in the wings. For a time, the name of Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club, which won a Pulitzer Prize, mysteriously appeared on the masthead as “contributing editor.” But Menand is a full professor at Harvard now and unlikely to return to the fold. Another rumored candidate is Ian Buruma, who has been writing for the paper since 1985. Buruma grew up in the Netherlands, teaches at Bard, and has written acclaimed books on subjects as diverse as Japanese culture and Muslims in Europe: He possesses the cultural and intellectual range for the job. But he won’t even be drawn into a discussion of the issue. “I hope Bob will go on for a hundred years,” Buruma says. “He’s doing it very capably, and he has an immense appetite and capacity for hard work.”

Silvers also deflected the question. “I’m terrifically involved in the next issue,” he said, a note of urgency in his voice, when I asked him if he’s thought about a successor. “You have to think of book after book. You’re asking people to spend weeks of their lives writing a review. It’s an important commitment, a huge responsibility.” In other words, no.

Phones are going on night,” a woman’s voice intones over a speakerphone on the conference table where Silvers and I have been talking on this late-summer afternoon. I get up to leave, but somehow the subject of Melville has come up and he wants to show me a book. “Andrew Delbanco’s?” I ask, mentioning the recent highly praised biography. We agree that the Delbanco book is very fine indeed, but Silvers has another book in mind.

We adjourn to a vast corner room filled with ziggurats of books, among which he instantly locates Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine, by Robert Milder, a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. A cleaning lady in a blue uniform tries to sweep around him, but Silvers is oblivious, intently focused on the subject at hand. Milder’s book, he says, searching for a word, is “exigent”—it has to be consulted, has to be read. Nothing matters more.

He shows me out. Propped on the counter next to a pile of issues is a photograph of Barbara Epstein.


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