Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rahm was Right: Read the New York Review of Books!

Update: A version of this made the Rescued list at Daily Kos.

When the release of the torture memos was criticized, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel responded, "Go get the New York Review of Books!"
He's right--and for more reasons than he meant specifically in that interview.

He was talking about the Mark Danner articles about the secret Red Cross report on U.S. torture, that ran in the April 9 and April 30 issues. But this kind of reporting, which may seem odd to those who don't know the tradition of the New York Review of Books, is only one reason to read this periodical.

As it happens, my subscription is up for renewal. So I'm about to tell you why I'm ponying up to renew it. The first reason is that tradition of reporting represented by Danner, with the kind of courage and in the kind of detail that got me reading this periodical a long time ago.

In the mid and late 60s, when the very young New York Review was among the few publications to expose the lies supporting the Vietnam War. It did so with essays and reporting, and with--perhaps most surprising to readers today--reviews of books.

I recall one vividly. It was a review of Air War: Vietnam by Frank Harvey, which simply reported on the reality of U.S. bombing and the devastation it caused. The review by author Robert Crichton (which is excerpted on the back of the paperback edition of the book)reproduced sections of the book and summarized others. The book had been published some time before and was unnoticed until this review.

For those of us not in New York or even on a large politically active campus, sources of information were few. We got pamphlets etc. from various antiwar organizations, but we relied on just a few sources, like the magazine Ramparts in San Francisco, a scattering of articles in Esquire and other magazines, but most of all, the New York Review of Books.

This was important, because opposition to the war was fed by facts, despite the movies you may have seen. Teach-ins were important and substantive. We were steeped in the history of southeast Asia, in the experiences of colonial regimes, in geopolitical theory and realities,as well as the suppressed facts about what was actually happening in Vietnam. So the recent Mark Danner pieces are squarely within that tradition. (They are online here and here.)

But just as important as the reporting and political discussion is the context of books and the culture of intelligence. We exist in an interrelated world where it is impossible to understand politics--and such complex and emotional issues as torture as an interrogation technique--without knowing as much as we can about what humans are thinking and feeling in a given time, and where historically those thoughts and feelings come from, as well as what light current science can shed on what seems inexplicable. Plus it's a big world.

There are lots of books published about all kinds of important and fascinating subjects, as well as novels and volumes of poetry that provide their own kinds of information on our world. The New York Review's writers--among the best writers and scholars around---write in depth and enough length to give us the gist of the books under discussion (and let's face it, it's unlikely we'll read all of them, so this is about as much as we'll learn from them) as well as trenchant commentary and informed context.

The April 9 issue, containing the first Danner piece, is a great example. It has Pico Iyer reporting on the current situation in Tibet and the Dalai Lama. It's relatively brief yet covers a lot of ground incisively, informed by personal experience, so it's probably the best you could read anywhere.

How about connecting the economic crisis to the foundation ideas of major religions, as well as the planet, the past and the future? Novelist Margaret Atwood does in a new nonfiction book, and John Gray's review describes and summarizes it in a tantalizing way.

There's also an interesting review of Robert Kaiser's book on lobbying in Washington, Anthony Lewis on a book about lawyers, pieces on the South African president who followed Mandella and the courts in Cambodia.

But in this same issue is a review of a new novel by Zoe Heller, Freeman Dyson writing about a new book on a unified physics theory, Jeremy Bernstein on Big Science. Books on Lincoln, what makes the French French, and Flannery O'Connor.

There is also the best article I've read on the poetry of John Ashbery, by Dan Chiasson. It's trenchant and comprehensive, and without jargon, cant or any obscurity. It is a great example of what the New York Review publishes at its best. I believe in the liberal arts ideal as well as liberal ideals--and this publication brings both to life, in the moment.

This is the Spring Books issue, so not every issue is this big or good, but it gives an accurate idea of the range. Politically as in the arts and sciences, the Review gives space to well articulated arguments of various persuasions--in fact, the new May 14 issue has an article calling for the limitation of presidential power by Senator Arlen Specter.

The New York Review places some but not all of its articles on the Internet, so the paper edition is essential. My biggest problem with the Review is the same now as it always was: getting to read all that I want to before the next issue arrives. This year I did pretty well through the fall and winter until March. Now I'm behind. But the publication schedule slows in the summer (it's normally every two weeks), so I'm looking forward to some hours in the sun catching up. Right now though I have to make sure the issues keep coming, by renewing my subscription.

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