Brigitte Lacombe/Courtesy of HBO
The 50 Year Argument
New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers in his office.
The 50 Year Argument is a nostalgic film, evoking a time when the reviewing of books was a noble profession, and book reviews were a necessary – indeed, a critical – part of the business of publishing books.
The New York Review of Books came into being in 1963 during a newspaper strike, and if we are to believe the NYRB's founding myth (as described in The 50 Year Argument) it was an historic moment, when New York publishers were desperate to promote their titles, with buckets of advertising money to be spent and nowhere to spend it. NYRB's founders Barbara and Jason Epstein (both editors), together with their writer friends Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, realized that they might never again have a similar opportunity: to start up a new publication devoted entirely to reviews – requiring no money of their own. Nowadays professional book reviewing is everywhere in decline, and few newspapers now offer a dedicated book review section.
Robert Silvers was persuaded to be the NYRB's first editor, and he has remained at the helm for the periodical's entire fifty-year plus history: a remarkable run. My favourite scenes in the film are those showing Silvers, now 85, at his NYRB office, impeccably dressed, the desktop and floors nearly invisible beneath stacks of books and correspondence. It feels like the still centre of a universe that hums with ideas and intelligent debate: Silvers dictating a letter to a potential reviewer, proofreading articles, or discussing minor production details with his colleagues.
Martin Scorsese, reportedly a longtime NYRB subscriber, co-directs the film with David Tedeschi, and they have assembled an impressive collection of NYRB contributors to pay tribute, including Mary Beard, Joan Didion, Timothy Garton Ash, Yasmine El Rashidi, and Colm Toibin (alas: no Margaret Atwood). There's also a fascinating assortment of vintage video clips, such as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal sparring on an episode of the Dick Cavett Show, or Mailer going head to head with a very young Susan Sontag during a public debate on feminism. Many of these, of course, could likely be found on Youtube, but we see them here in context.
There is one more screening of The 50 Year Argument remaining, on March 26th at 4:30 pm at the Vancity Theatre; see here for details.