Book Essay - Summer 2017

Remembering Bob Silvers

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The legendary New York Review of Books editor knew everybody, had read everything, and oversaw every stage of what he published

Silvers was well known for calling his authors with a question on weekends and holidays. His talented assistants had to work in shifts to keep up with him. (Annie Schlechter/ New York Review of Books)

By Garry Wills

June 5, 2017



Half the fun (at least) of being an editor of a literary review must be matching a book and its reviewer. What will that reveal about the book, and what about the reviewer, and what about their conjunction? Robert B. Silvers, who with Barbara Epstein (his co-editor for 43 years until her death in 2006) had that duopoly followed by his monopoly for all the life of the “paper,” as they called The New York Review of Books. Silvers, who died in March, wanted to get something new out of each matchup—his favorite term of praise for the result was that it said something “fresh.” But he did not think of the job as confined to just that one creative gamble. He personally oversaw every stage of the resulting review, suggesting further insights, sending ancillary books or articles, negotiating phraseology. One often got the feeling that this was a man who had met everybody and read everything. Yet how could he do that, chained as he was for most of every day, weekends and holidays included, to his editing desk?

Of course, he did not do it alone, or just with Barbara. He had an incredibly skilled staff—usually three principal assistants—in the office with him, across from his desk, getting the appropriate references, linking Bob by phone with the author when Bob or the reviewer was traveling, checking references. I learned how these anonymous workers were chosen when a very promising student of mine, about to graduate from Northwestern University, applied to be one of Bob’s assistants. Bob called me about the young man and asked the expected questions. Did he have wide interests, cultural and political? Had he more languages than English? Did he write well? I assured him he was well qualified on all those counts. And then he asked me an unexpected question: “Does he have a sense of humor?”

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Garry Wills is professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University, and the author of Lincoln at Gettysburg and, most recently, Verdi's Shakespeare.

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