Postcards from the Review

On my first day of work at the New York Review of Books, while sorting through Bob Silvers’ mail, I happened upon an odd letter. It was a crayon drawing that looked like it had been created by a child. A bright yellow sun shone down on a pair of green half circles, denoting a bucolic country scene. A red box stood on the top of the right hump, while a smiling purple person with an upside-down triangle for a head strode up the other. Across the back the words “Hi Bob. Hope you’re doing well.” were written in large red print.

When I showed it to someone who had already been at the review for five years, he recognized the sender immediately: “This is from an editorial assistant who used to work for Bob,” he said. “She’s in a mental hospital now. There are two others that also send letters like this.”

He grinned, “Are you sure you still want to work here?”

I wasn’t that surprised — I had been told before even starting my job as an editorial assistant that working under Bob was hectic and stressful . Still, it wasn’t what I needed to hear on my first day.

That nervousness only increased when I heard that Bob was just returning from his annual summer vacation in Europe with his partner of thirty years, Lady Dudley. He was anxious to get back to work, feeling that he had been neglecting his duties over the past few weeks.

When he finally showed up at the office, it was 9 pm and I was the only one left on duty. He went straight to his desk without even a peremptory greeting — I would later learn that this was standard behavior. I waited in anticipation and soon enough the tasks rolled in.

Pencil, he said, so softly at first that I could barely make the word out, pencil, louder now rising in intensity and again, pencil, like a mantra, pencil and then I was rising out of my seat, pencil, tripping over a stack of books, pencil, and finally at Bob’s desk, rifling through the piles of papers, books, cups and crumbs and Bob was now yelling pencil, where is my pencil!, while I scanned his desk in bewilderment — where were Bob’s pencils; there must have been twenty in a cup only half an hour earlier; where did they all go so quickly — and me sprinting around the office, checking in drawers, pencil, pencil, pencil, digging through bags until I located one, rushed back to Bob’s desk, thrust it in his hand, and, silence once more. But the silence didn’t last long. A few minutes later and there was a new request, “Page twelve, where is page twelve?” and I leapt up again, faster this time because now I was expecting it, could rush to his desk by the second shout, but only to find a mound of papers there where once there had been a neat stack, five or six manuscripts mixed together.

“Bob, which page twelve?”

“Page twelve. Just bring me page twelve.”

And so I sifted through the pile, separating and collating, while the tattoo of Bob’s voice increased steadily, and I presented each newly discovered page twelve to him, wincing at his frustration that it was not the right one. When the correct page was finally located, the complete manuscript in his hand, suddenly Bob started mumbling, or at least I thought he was mumbling, until I realized he was in fact reciting a letter to a contributor, which I should have been taking down. And so again I ran, this time to our iMac, and started writing as much as I could understand, hoping to fill the first half in later. But he trailed off as soon as I’ve started writing, because there was a form to these letters, which he assumed I knew, but I didn’t know, so now I had to fill in the entire letter, or rather call another editorial assistant and have them fill it in as soon as I had found another pencil, taken the dictation on three more letters, and couriered a book to a contributor, even though it was one in the morning and they were surely sleeping.

It felt as if there was a volcano in the middle of the room that was on the verge of erupting and I could only avert disaster by offering up sacrifices, performing triage until I could hand off the hot potato to someone else and get far enough away to not be caught in the next explosion.

I worked at the Review for two years, and while it was an entertaining, exciting, and intellectually stimulating place to work, it could also resemble an asylum. Bob cofounded the Review in the sixties and had worked there for so long that by the time I arrived it felt like the Review was an extension of him. It was like we were all working somewhere in the recesses of his brilliant and eccentric mind.

Bob’s office was an excellent visual metaphor for how his mind seemed to work. Laid out like a classroom, with places for four editorial assistants on one end and Bob’s large desk on the other, it was filled with information. Some of this knowledge was permanent, contained within the books packing the shelves behind Bob’s desk and along the entire left side of the office. But the majority was transitory, the vast collection of galleys, academic monographs, re-editions, that flowed past Bob’s desk, only a select few to be sent off to contributors, and finally incorporated into the pages of the publication.

At the same time, the office was extremely disorderly. There were stacks of books resting against desks, walls, other stacks of books; there were four enormous rolodexes stuffed with contact information that had become outdated twenty years earlier. There were cabinets of accordion files filled with newspaper clippings, Xeroxes of pages and other pieces of ephemera tangentially related to some piece commissioned sometime in the past and never thrown away, and a second set of accordion files splayed across one of the larger countertops, because it was impossible to find anything in the cabinet files anymore. Someone really needed to clean up those files, but no one ever did.

Despite the seriousness of the publication, the office was filled with silliness. Amidst the piles of books and reams of paper scattered about the office, there were baubles and toys. A large, green, plastic frog surveyed the room from the top of the highest stack, while a multicolored, stuffed caterpillar wrapped around the side of one of our cubicles. There were other smaller plastic frogs as well as a few turtles tucked into various crannies, peeking out from the office’s paper crenellations. One of the other editorial assistants was the architect of this whimsy, but Bob went along with it and even seemed to enjoy it, laughing about the decorations whenever a visiting contributor brought them up.

Much like his office, Bob was a receptacle for a huge amount of information, spanning economics to philosophy to art history, and compiled over decades. There were very few subjects that he could not discuss more intelligently than many experts. After so many years around books, he had also developed the ability to very quickly scan through a book and form a rigorous opinion, to immediately discern what, if anything, was original and important about it.

At the same time, Bob was also very disorganized. He could be incredibly distractible, and seemed to struggle in directing his attention. It took him a very long time to get into the mood to get anything done. He would often spend the day reading the newspaper, chatting on the phone with Lady Dudley for hours, watching television before finally getting down to work at eleven o’clock at night. If a task was onerous, like a problematic manuscript, he couldn’t apply himself to it. There was a continuously growing stack of yellowed manuscripts tucked away on a corner of Bob’s desk and buried underneath several books. If Bob didn’t like an article that he had commissioned, or simply thought that it would take too much work, he would often dump it on the side of his desk and never really get back to it. Every few weeks the contributor in question would call for an update, but eventually they would give up. At least they were still paid for their work.

If Bob couldn’t bring himself to work on something uninteresting, he couldn’t tear himself away from engaging tasks. He could spend hours in a state of intense focus: often when encountered walking down the halls of the Review, Bob would be in such a deep state of concentration that he would jump in surprise when someone got in his way and forced him out of his thoughts. This state of deep concentration was probably invaluable to him as an editor, allowing him to refine and re-refine a manuscript for hours with a television on, editorial assistants chatting, phones ringing; working every day until four in the morning for over fifty years.

During my first six months at the Review, I spent most of my time giggling: giggling at the terror that Bob would inspire in the staff; giggling because I was terrified; giggling at his incredibly personal conversations with Lady Dudley; giggling at the fact that he never remembered my name and would always refer to me as Milner. I also did my part to try to fight the entropy of the office, taking several thousand of the most important contacts and entering them into our iMac, which seemed like cutting edge technology next to the typewriters cluttering up our desk, still in use as late as 2001. For this achievement, I was permanently known as the “technology specialist” and later charged with getting voice transcription software working for Bob. Unfortunately, the state of the art dictation program at that time made for a poor amanuensis, being incapable of making edits on the fly or inferring the proper boilerplate that went into a typical Bob letter, the transcriptions instead spelling out the narrative of Bob’s increasing frustration with the program:

“Dear John. No, scratch that. Just John.”

“Bob,” I said. “It doesn’t understand what you’re saying. You need to put it in edit mode before you can change anything.”

“Oh, damn it. Well what does it have so far?”

“Tear gone. No, patch that. Dust gone.” I looked up. “It just goes on like that.”

No wonder they’d stuck with typewriters for so long.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about Bob was the contrast between his work self and his social self. He could spend hours poring over manuscripts in deep concentration, dressed in a ratty old sweater covered in crumbs from his main form of sustenance — instant soup in a Styrofoam cup with crackers floating on top — so intent on his work that he said very little apart from the occasional command. But once a visitor arrived his face would light up, he would tell interesting stories and crack witty jokes: he was charming. For all the time that I spent with him, for the intimacy of our relationship, there was a whole other side to Bob that I did not know and would never know.

My most memorable image of Bob occurred on our first night together. It was well past midnight and he had just returned to the office after a brief nap on a couch in his back room. Several minutes after sitting down at his desk, he decided that he needed a book high up on a bookcase behind him. Despite being over seventy, he was still quite limber and, before I could do anything, had managed to climb up onto a counter below the book case. As he stretched himself out, stretched to reach the relevant shelf, he paused, turned around, looked at me and proceeded to beat on his chest with both fists like a silverback, yelling: “Bring me more. Bring me more!”