Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Gift

Robert Silvers receiving the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at 
the White House, July 2013. Without naming Obama, Zadie Smith's 
tribute suggests that Silver admired him greatly  as  a "kind of genius." 
 So this moment must have been a wonderful one,
 and you can see that in his eyes.
The latest New York Review of Books, while functioning as usual as its spring art issue, also contains a number of tributes to its last founding editor, Robert B. Silvers, as well as salutes in this issue's advertisements.

I noted Silvers recent death in a previous post, and several years ago I wrote about this periodical's brilliant articles on political and geopolitical matters from the very beginning, when it was one of the most important sources on the Vietnam war in the late 60s.  That function continues.  For example in this issue, Jonathan Freedland's piece ("Dover and Out") is the best single narrative on the UK's suicidal Brexit process that I've read anywhere.

  But several of the just published tributes prompt me to focus less on content than on Silver's and the NYRB's effects on writing.

My afore-linked piece on a single issue of the NYRB prompted my only contact with Robert Silvers, which was an out of the blue email from him: "I was touched by what you said about the paper. During 46 years, I’ve never read a piece in which a writer said what was actually in an issue."

These tributes make me only more envious of those that had written for him.  All the writers agree that his genius was in editing to clarify but to maintain the writer's own voice, which is a rare editorial quality. But it was not necessarily an easy process. Mark Lilla for instance:

"Bob at work on a manuscript resembled nothing so much as a Jesuit spiritual adviser, minus the collar, helping the novice refine his raw inner awareness. It was a vocation, in the strict sense, an expression of magnanimity. He was determined to see that a book got the appreciation and criticism it deserved. But even more, it seemed to me, he wanted the writer to understand himself better than he already did. You say this, and you’re on to something, but what does it really mean? What are you trying to say? Bob had a profound abhorrence of vagueness. It was the cardinal sin because it was cowardly, a self-evasion. More than once I wanted to tear the hairshirt off. Icarus, c’est moi. He never permitted it because he was more loyal to me than I was to myself."

What were the enduring values that Silvers' editorial mission championed?  Former NYRB editorial assistant Nathaniel Rich summarizes:

"Good writing is capable of bringing to life even the most arcane subjects. Big ideas demand vivid prose. Academic jargon is fatal, as are stock expressions, terms of art, empty metaphors. Dead language not only obscures the ideas it means to describe. It blocks original thinking. Many writers will say that Bob brought out their best prose. He did more than that. He brought out their highest thoughts.

Clarity of prose leads to clarity of mind. And without clarity of mind, moral clarity is impossible."

As Lilla also points out: "In reading the Review, you always learn something."
Even if I didn't experience Silvers' editing, I absorbed some of this ethic simply by reading what Silvers' referred to as "the paper."  I'm sure it shaped my writing to some degree, and my reading.

But Lilla goes on to offer the ultimate tribute to an editor:

" In reading the Review, you always learn something. In writing for Bob, you became something. It was a gift none of us really deserved. But what gift ever is? That’s what makes it a gift."

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