When Robert Silvers, the longtime editor of the New York Review of Books, passed away in March at the age of 87, it forced a question that the respected literary institution had long been trying to avoid: who would be Silvers’s successor? “Bob,” as he was commonly referred to, had co-edited the publication alongside Barbara Epstein since its inception in 1963, continuing to do so solo after she passed in 2004. That he wasn’t publicly grooming anyone to step into his shoes as he crept up in years caused many a bitten nail among its writers and readers.
With the selection by the NYRB’s publisher Rea Hederman of writer and long-time NYRB contributor Ian Buruma to be its new editor, we can all take our fingers out of our mouth. In hindsight, it seems obvious that Buruma would have been the heir apparent. Since 1985, when the NYRB published his review of Donald Keene’s two-volume anthology of Japanese literature, Burma has been one the review’s staple writers. From that first piece on, he had enjoyed a close relationship with Silvers, which he recollected in a tribute assembled by the Review:
“I had foolishly blurted out the idea of writing about Donald Keene’s enormous two-volume opus on modern Japanese literature, about which my knowledge was not nearly sufficient to write a serious essay. But my fit of bluff in Bob’s office had piqued his interest. He had wanted something on Japan. The piece was deemed adequate enough for publication (“very fresh” might have been his scribbled note of encouragement). After that it was “on we go, old boy,” his usual phrase as soon as another piece had been printed. And what a journey it has been. My life as a writer owes everything to Bob’s editorship.”
As a writer, Buruma couldn’t be a more ideal candidate. The author of several books (including a few published by the NYRB’s eponymous book imprint) Buruma to date has managed to pen over 200 pieces for the bi-monthly publication, all of which reflect upon a wide-range of cultural, political, and philosophical inquiries and histories—in particular those of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Modern Asia. In 2013, when the the NYRB put out a 50th anniversary anthology of its best international writing to date, Silvers selected Buruma to provide prefatory notes for each piece in this , while also including his essay, “Tibet Disenchanted.” Buruma also participated in public events to help celebrate the Review’s quinquagenary.
While Buruma’s appointment as the NYRB’s third editor in its 54-year history is largely a cause celebré, it doesn’t come entirely clean of dissent. At 65, Buruma is hardly new blood for the publication, but is rather a tried and true member of its establishment. This is hardly likely to address the criticisms that the NYRB has grown, in recent years, to become a patriarchal and stuffy institution. And it remains to be seen how Buruma will be as editor, an occupation in which he has far less experience. One may hope that Buruma, currently the Paul W. Williams Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, raises those Vita numbers while at the same time hones a talent for the same grace of editorial hand that Silvers lent to his own work. As he describes it:
“[Bob] had too much respect for writers he trusted to wish to change their individual styles. In this respect he was quite different from many editors, especially in the US, who see the words delivered by their contributors as raw material to, as one distinguished editor once put it to me, as though I should be grateful, ‘get [his] teeth into.’ Bob’s teeth marks never showed. But he had an infallible eye for loose thinking. His brilliance lay in his sense of clarity. He made you think harder. There was no room in his “paper” for fuzziness or vague abstractions. He wanted examples, descriptions, and concrete thoughts. And because he was the ideal reader you most wanted to please, you gradually learned how to express yourself better.”
It’s a pragmatic choice by the NYRB, and a decision that we should both welcome and hold to the highest standard.