Martin Scorsese’s movies are rife with conflict, competition, and battle scenes. He brought the brutality of boxing to the screen (Raging Bull), the greed of high finance (The Wolf of Wall Street), and the bloody gang wars of nineteenth-century Manhattan (Gangs of New York). So it makes sense that he has also made a film about the verbal sparring that goes on in the New York Review of Books, the world’s most important, brilliant, and stimulating periodical.
The Review, as it is known to its admirers, entered my life about twenty years ago, when a friend pressed a fresh copy into my hands. I devoured long articles on Leonardo da Vinci, The Simpsons, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the history of the blues, an essay entitled The Computer Wars (involving Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, IBM, and Nintendo). I couldn’t stop reading, and after a while I was pretty sure that I had found the philosopher’s stone. A few years later, I married the woman to whom I owed this discovery – a detail worth mentioning here only because it reflects the kind of existential importance that the Review has, in one form or another, for many of its readers.
In Scorsese’s documentary, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín describes how he first came across the magazine as a young man in Dublin in the early 1970s, and how he began to feel, from issue to issue, that he was becoming part of a worldwide "group of people – I hesitate to call them intellectuals." Review reporter Michael Greenberg had a rather different experience. He was born and raised in New York, but to him, the Review was an inaccessible, mythic place: "When I was reading the Review as a very young man – or boy, even – I never thought I’d have a chance to write for it. This to me would have been Xanadu … and also scary." In Israel, the philosopher Avishai Margalit found in its pages "a cosmopolitan magazine, anchored in this kind of mental Europe."
Scorsese’s own connection to the Review goes back to its very beginnings. In early 1963, as a young student at NYU, he spotted the first issue at a newsstand near Washington Square Park, just a few blocks north of Little Italy, where he had grown up in a family that didn’t care too much about books. "It was the period of the newspaper strike," Scorsese explained to an audience last year after a screening at the Berlin Film Festival, "and the Review looked really interesting. And I’ve been reading it since."
The fact that this magazine came into existence at all is a small miracle – more on that later. But what’s really astonishing is that today, over fifty years after its first issue and against all trends, the New York Review of Books is more successful than ever. In some ways, it seems to reach out to us from a bygone, pre-digital era: The Review comes out every two weeks, printed on newspaper. It consists exclusively of very long texts. In them, extremely knowledgeable people present the facts and think things through, with great calm, clarity, and thoroughness. Complexity! Thoughtfulness! Expertise! These are the antiquated means by which the Review has just reached the highest print run in its history.
And the more digital our culture becomes, the more the Review seems like a counterforce to the frantic forward-thrust of the Internet – and that alone makes it more relevant than ever.
The singularity of this publication can at least partly be explained by its adventurous past, by a series of very fortunate coincidences, and, of course, by its content: The name The New York Review of Books is slightly misleading, as it suggests the magazine is devoted to publishing book reviews. In truth, it uses books – mostly new books, but old ones, too – to gain a better understanding of the world itself. Oh, and to change that world, if possible and where necessary. The very best texts in the Review read like treatises of the enlightenment camouflaged as book reviews. You may agree with their arguments or oppose them, but nothing here is ever hidden behind flowery or ambiguous language.
The more digital our culture becomes, the more the Review seems like a counterweight to the Internet
Certainly, all of the major conflicts of the past five decades have been reflected in the pages of the Review. Earlier than other American media, the paper was sharply critical of the war in Vietnam. It shed light on the CIA torture methods used after 9/11, it has looked at government corruption around the world, and has scrutinized dictators on both the left and the right. Human rights issues have been a major focus from the start.
Scorsese’s film interweaves dramatic archival footage – of anti-Vietnam demonstrations, riots and police violence, the "Occupy" protests – with shots of the Review’s editorial offices. This is edited so skillfully that the historical battles appear inseparably intertwined with the acts of reading and writing: an eternal circuit of ideas that lead to action, and actions that demand new ideas.
For many conservative cultural critics – not featured in Scorsese’s film, alas – the Review is partly to blame for the fact that the 1960s in America were a decade of rebellion and turbulence. And also for making it impossible for the allegedly intact world of the 1950s to ever fully return. In 1970 Tom Wolfe scornfully described the Review as "the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic." The conservative magazine New Criterion was still grumbling about it as late as 1998: "More than any other journal, The New York Review of Books made America’s cultural revolution seem like an intellectually respectable enterprise."
When educated conservatives get riled up about the Review – always with relish! – they will inevitably bring up the notorious cover of August 24, 1967. Under the headline "Violence and the Negro," it featured a simple diagram showing the ingredients of a Molotov cocktail. The issue contained a fiery report by the activist Tom Hayden covering five days of race riots that had rocked Newark, New Jersey, that July (26 dead, 725 injured, 1,500 under arrest). There are passages in this text that read less like reporting and more like a manual for street fighters.
Around this time, the Review’ s wild years, a handful of truly radical manifestos appeared in its pages. And depending on your political perspective, that phase either revealed the paper’s true revolutionary nature – or simply marks a transitory zeitgeist infection that made the paper immune to later trends and intellectual fads. Either way, the Review soon returned to its path of responsible reasoning – without ever becoming staid or adhering to any particular party line. Barack Obama, for example, may have had positive coverage in the Review as a candidate, but as president he has received plenty of searing criticism in its pages.