Listening to a podcast yesterday, I heard a tribute to the longtime New York Review of Books (NYRB) editor Robert Silvers, who died on Monday at the age of 87. He had been editor since the first issue in 1963, with one of the founders Barbara Epstein as co-editor until her death in 2006.
The NYRB is a major English language cultural institution, but in a way I would like to see it die with Silvers. I fear a giant media company such as Conde Nast will buy the title to exploit its legendary status. Its editorial decisions would then be determined by commercial considerations rather than the passions of an obsessed longtime editor.
Silvers' passions have defined the NYRB, and often a publication's story can be just as interesting as its content. For me the NYRB's wider story includes the London Review of Books (LRB) and Sydney's own Newtown Review of Books (NRB). Australian Book Review would qualify if it was called the Melbourne Review of Books, but it's not and therefore it doesn't.
Aside from the 'Review of Books' in their titles, what they have in common is that, in their own way, each of them is an upstart.
The NYRB was founded when a printers' strike shut down seven New York City newspapers, to take advantage of a gap in the market for book reviews. Similarly the LRB was started when publication of the Times Literary Supplement was suspended during the year-long management lock-out at The Times in 1979. Curiously the LRB was included as an insert in the NYRB for its first six months, in an umbilical cord kind of arrangement.
The NRB's 2012 'upstart' founding was a little different, more in the nature of fandom. Or perhaps 'taking the piss'. I'm never sure. It was the hobby of a couple of Newtown locals from the world of publishing and editing, one of whom is married to the 'Godfather of Australian crime fiction' Peter Corris, who write's the NRB's 'Godfather' column.
The editing of the NRB is very professional, and like its more wordy and worthy namesakes, it does takes itself seriously, though in a different way.
It has a tight discipline and invariably does what it says it does. That is 'to provide intelligent reviews of books people will want to read'. It covers a range of subject areas that is eclectic but excludes poetry and children's books.
The stylistic counterpoint to the reviews is the 'Godfather' column, and it does an excellent job in filling out the NRB's 'eclectic' brief. It's always a good read. This week's is on hair. Corris, with his hairline intact, pontificates on the comb-over and other options available to balding men.
As a hobbyist online publication that cuts a professional cloth, NRB is part of a local tradition that includes the film review site Urban Cinefile. The editors Louise Keller and Andrew Urban decided to call it a day last month after 20 years and 1040 weekly editions.
I always found their reviews every bit as compelling as those of David and Margaret. But sadly the media acolades that marked the ending of their review partnership did not, as far as I can tell, extend beyond the Manly Daily.