On the New York Review of Books

On February 1st 1963 The New York Review of Books published its first issue during a printer’s strike that had shut down all seven New York City newspapers. Over the years, the scope of its coverage has expanded to the extent that it has become the leading cultural periodical in this country. I recently purchased a copy of that first issue. The editors introduced the publication this way:

The New York Review of Books presents reviews of some of the more interesting and important books published this winter. It does not, however, seek merely to fill the gap created by the printers strike in New York City but to take the opportunity which the strike has presented to publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel in need in America….The hope of the editors is to suggest, however imperfectly, some of the qualities which a responsible literary journal should have and to discovery whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one.

After more than 50 years of publishing a new issue almost every two weeks, there is little doubt there both a “need” and demand for a publication of this sort. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, once the foremost literary publication in this country, has said it was “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.” The quality of the essays in the succeeding issues has continued that tradition.

The first issue has superb reviews of well-known authors by well-known writers. Mary McCarthy reviewed William Burroughs’, The Naked Lunch; Susan Sontag reviewed Selected Essays by Simone Weil; W. H. Auden wrote about David Jones’ Anathemata; Dwight Macdonald reviewed The Politics of Hope by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. etc., etc.

Separately, the first issue contained new poems: Robert Lowell’s Buenos Aires; John Berryman’s Three Dream Songs; Robert Penn Warren’s "Lyrics" from Delight, as well as reviews of several books of poetry. And there were a great many pages advertising new fiction and non-fiction books.

I always look forward to the next issue. Will there be topics that interest me, writers who impress me with their erudition, and writing that will amuse and educate? There always are; here is an example.

In the August 8, 2013 issue Freeman Dyson reviewed a new biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the troubled genius I so admire, that focuses on his work in physics. Dyson knew Oppenheimer and believes that his work in physics was of minor importance.

But he thinks highly of his many other contributions—role in building the first cyclotron at Berkeley, teaching graduate students, leading the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and serving as Chairman of a committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Still, it is his failure to break new ground in theoretical physics that disappoints Dyson. He attributes it to a lack of what he calls “Sitzfleisch.” “Sitzfleisch” is a German word that means “the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were always done hastily and often full of mistakes.”

I have no way to evaluate Dyson’s claim. But the concept of Sitzfleisch interests me and as I think about it, I realize it applies widely. I know how fruitful it can be to concentrate for an extended period on a topic. And I know others who are simply unable to do that, to their detriment and ultimate regret.

Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have recently made a film, The 50 Year Argument that is an in-depth-portrait of the periodical. It draws upon rare archival material, interviews, and the work of some of its writers to illustrate the range of the magazine during the past five decades.

The film premiered on HBO at the end of September. I trust it will eventually become more widely available.