The 50 Year Argument
September 24, 2014 5:20 PM   Subscribe

The New York Review of Books recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding (previously), growing out of an alliance between Harpers editor Robert Silvers and writer Elizabeth Hardwick to find a place for what she called "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting." Known as the New York Review or the NYRB, it is also known to fans as the best magazine in the world. Next Monday, HBO will air The 50-Year Argument, a documentary by Martin Scorsese about the history of the magazine and what makes it special.
“Magazines don’t change the world, but they shape a certain kind of climate of ideas,” says Avishai Margalit. “There is a metaphor: Influence goes like the knight in chess, one move straight, and then diagonally. It doesn’t go in straight lines.”
Wikipedia: "Some reviewers felt that Scorsese and Tedeschi were noticeably well disposed to the NYRB."
posted by grobstein (19 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
This feature has a couple cool tidbits about the film.
posted by grobstein at 5:22 PM on September 24, 2014

My mother met her partner via the classified ads of the NYRB (yes, seriously). I'm endlessly amused by the differing reactions people have when I tell them this, which are based entirely on whether they've ever seen the NYRB classifieds.

It was also the standard by which my mother measured my writing in high school. She had no idea what the standards of an American high school were, so obviously Tony Judt should be used as the benchmark for 'good'. In other words, my mother never pronounced any piece of my schoolwork better than "probably acceptable".
posted by hoyland at 5:57 PM on September 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I once saw the magazine dismissively referred to as the New York Review of (Each Other's) Books.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:01 PM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

Brian Leiter uses that quip a lot. I've written about it before.
posted by grobstein at 6:06 PM on September 24, 2014

I realize that I've been reading it for 30 years now, since age 12. You probably know a lot about me from that fact alone.
posted by tftio at 6:37 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

And I subscribed to Punch when I was 12. Being an Anglophile is more embarrassing than being a bookworm.
posted by kozad at 7:00 PM on September 24, 2014

I'm very much looking forward to the upcoming documentary, but I will say I've become more disenchanted with NYRB since the death of Barbara Epstein in 2006.

Russell Jacoby wrote an good critical piece (The Graying of 'The New York Review of Books' - The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2014) examining the current state of the magazine.
posted by Auden at 7:27 PM on September 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

... from the Graying of the 'New York Review of Books' article: "Many of the reviews seem too long by half and meander without an argument. Moreover the emotional register of the magazine hardly varies from one piece to another. It is consistently poker-faced, circumspect, and humorless."
posted by Auden at 7:32 PM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Scorsese has now done documentaries about Bob Dylan, The Band, The Rolling Stones, his parents, a friend addicted to heroin, and The New York Review of Books. Hunh.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:57 PM on September 24, 2014

oh, wow.
posted by cytherea at 10:55 PM on September 24, 2014

NYRB has lost a step. It's certainly no TLS.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 4:15 AM on September 25, 2014

I saw this on the BBC recently and I really enjoyed it. I didn't know much about the NYRB beforehand (other than having read the odd article online) but it held my attention.
posted by crocomancer at 4:23 AM on September 25, 2014

I haven't read the NYRB long enough to know whether it's dropped off, but I do want to give a shoutout to its Classics line of reprints--I've read around forty or fifty of them and there's been maybe one or two duds and about 20% absolutely top tier--all the rest very very good.
posted by Hypatia at 5:36 AM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I let my subscription lapse after one too many essays contained the odious phrase "in these pages" to refer to essays published in earlier numbers. Seen every third issue, the expression has a kind of plummy charm, but once the affectation cropped up every third essay, I began to doubt the firmness of the hand at the editorial tiller. So now I read the London Review of Books and bask in the always witty prose of Jenny Diski.
posted by le_vert_galant at 7:10 AM on September 25, 2014

> "in these pages" to refer to essays published in earlier numbers.

But I love the way their writers basically write personal letters to each other in the letters to the editor column.
posted by jfuller at 8:45 AM on September 25, 2014

The NYRB has declined and if I have to choose I'd rather read the LRB these days, but it's still a wonderful periodical; if it ever starts looking like it's going to sink to the level of, say, the New Republic, I hope somebody has the decency to put it out of its misery.
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on September 25, 2014

I had to unsubscribe last year for the sake of other reading, because the LRB and NYRB between them would take my entire commute-length reading allocation every week to pore through each of their often gorgeous essays, and I decided that the LRB was marginally better and more relevant to me and still takes up far too much of my time even on its own.

I'll never forget the look on a friend's face as I spectacularly failed to explain the appeal to them: "What're those magazines you're always reading?" "Oh, it's the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books." "You're just... reading book reviews?" "No, it's not like that - they usually take these books and use them as jumping-off points for these big comprehensive essays about the subject matter or things tangentially related to it and sort of look critically at..." friend puts on a tolerant expression "...never mind."

But still, whenever I want to check out a new author or need a reliable rundown on a political matter (Katrina Forrester's excellent piece on undercover police sleeping with activists was shared with many friends, and their articles about Snowden and Assange were uniformly excellent and useful), the Reviews will always be the first places I look for quality thought.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:17 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've read many essays I liked there but never subscribed; the ads they used to send to entice me to do so put me right off, with their preening, self-satisfied elitism. On the other hand, reading the personal ads remains an eternal, and quite specific, pleasure. The lavender pastille of sugary treats.

Languagehat, do you not find TNR has improved since the new owner? The new essays seem punchier, more vigorous if not more rigorous. Miles better than when what's-his-face, the Israel-obsessed crank, was at the helm.
posted by Diablevert at 9:31 AM on September 25, 2014

> Languagehat, do you not find TNR has improved since the new owner?

Oh, I have no idea, sorry if I'm going on out-of-date spite and resentment. Not that sorry, though; better I take it out on TNR than the cats.
posted by languagehat at 12:22 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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