Mar 17

Cut clutter, clarify and care about every word: Robert Silvers, RIP

Much has been written about Robert Silvers, one of two founders of the New York Review of Books, who died the other day. I never met Silvers but almost feel as if I knew him, despite the fact that he almost never wrote in the NYRB as an author. To read the NYRB was to read the minds of many knowledgeable people; one was also reading the mind of Silvers. His mark was on every paragraph.

That was of course because he edited every word. People who create ideas which last simplify and clarify. Listen to Silvers in this interview from four years ago. I can imagine that his voice might, to some, sound ‘elitist’ and arrogant in its certainty. But hear the clarity of purpose – and the watchful care to have that expressed in every word and comma. Lazy writing is lazy thinking, and vice versa.

The only statement of editorial mission the NYRB ever needed appeared in the first issue in 1963:

“This issue … does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation, or to call attention to a fraud.”

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Apr 11

Royal wedding fever: sense (and nonsense)

Yesterday, the tweeters of politics were fascinated by the fallout from David Cameron saying “Calm down dear”, to a (female) Labour MP at Prime Minister’s Questions. In Washington, Barrack Obama was forced to devote a press briefing to disclosing his birth certificate. In this mad atmosphere, I abandoned my too-serious intention to write about the useful and increasing interest in verification in online news. Just didn’t seem to fit the mood.

Then I fell across (hat-tip: Martha Lane Fox) this piece by Tristram Hunt on tomorrow’s Royal Wedding. This pretty well nails it, especially thanks to Hunt’s depth of historical knowledge. He’s helping to explain why there’s a paradox in the royal soap opera.

When the royal family try too hard to perform for the media and to manipulate their image, it never goes well. When they ration the excitement and play it straight and cautious, the allure which Hunt describes very well holds steady. The Queen has always done it this way; Prince William and his fiancee look as they’ve got it too. Expect lots of commentary from metropolitan media sharpshooters in the next few years about what a boringly domestic couple Wills and Kate are. I suspect that’s exactly where they want to be. Whatever way William plays the media and celebrity, he isn’t likely to imitate his mother.

Tristram Hunt’s grasp of why something as apparently “illogical” as the monarchy endures in popularity is very much stronger than the prediction made by Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books. Freedland acknowledges and analyses the Queen’s durable popularity but thinks that the firm will be in trouble when she dies. That’s to underestimate the strength of the institution. Freedland doesn’t seem to realise that individual members of the British royal family have been making embarrassing mistakes for centuries without interfering with the respect and affection for the idea of monarchy and the family as a whole. It is a very strange, but resilient, mystique.


Jan 11

Tony Judt: fine writing from the shadow of death

One of my sons gave me for Christmas Tony Judt’s last book, The Memory Chalet. His choice wasn’t a hard one: I’ve wittered on for years about Judt’s perceptive and eloquent writing. But even being a paid-up Judt fan didn’t quite prepare me for this small, posthumous book’s perfectly-formed qualities.

All Judt’s skills are on display as they were fondly listed by his friends and colleagues when he died in August last year. You are reminded of his wide, lightly-worn learning, his grasp of cause and effect in European culture and history, his preparedness to unpick lazy conventional wisdom and his skill at clinching an argument with a skillfully selected and vividly described example. All these qualities and more are discussed more fully in this review by Michael O’Donnell in the Washington Monthly.

But there’s something different about this book, most of which was published episodically by the New York Review of Books in the months when Judt knew he was dying and as his body gradually shut down. The something different is the prose.

Judt was always a good writer; in The Memory Chalet he rises to a new level altogether. He was composing from memory during wakeful, immobile nights and memory is a ruthless editor, pruning the inessential. The writing fuses the personal and the political in a way that is truly rare. It reveals Judt as a talented reporter: he had an eye and a memory for killer detail.

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May 10

Subterranean democracy blues

Absolutely superb essay in the New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla on long, deep trends in American democracy and society. One of the best pieces of its kind I’ve read in a long time.  Some of those shifts are particular to the US, but I don’t think they’re entirely irrelevant to other affluent societies. Remember Lilla’s analysis as the mid-term election campaign heats up later this year.


May 10

Judt on austerity and restraint

A signpost to a piece in the current edition of the New York Review of Books by Tony Judt unpromisingly entitled “Austerity“.

Judt, author of the standout history of postwar Europe and dozens of other fine commentaries and books, suffers from a fatal progressive disease, ALS, and has been writing his life’s memoir in short pieces in the NYRB.  “Austerity” does not discuss journalism as such, but what he says about politics and entertainment could equally be applied to much modern journalism.

“The wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us form the poverty of the product; likewise in politics, where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhectoric mask a yawning emptiness.” OK, much journalism is conducted with lesser resources (particularly time). But read the whole piece and you’ll see what I mean.

Do not be put off by the fact that his subject is moral seriousness, austerity and restraint. Judt is one of a few writers who can make these ideas live.


Jan 10

A rare kind of journalism

I’ve been reading and reviewing the third and latest collection of essays by Timothy Garton Ash. His pieces, mostly from the New York Review of Books, are a rich mixture of reportage and reflection. The trick lies in the exact mixture of those two elements. My TLS review here.