Joan Didion looked tiny and frail on Tuesday night, swimming in her loose, gray top as she walked, assisted, to a chair and table set for her center stage at Town Hall in New York City. Didion was one of a menagerie of beloved authors who read and reminisced for a rapt audience at the New York Review of Books’s 50th anniversary celebration on Tuesday night.
Didion, who brought a magnifying glass with her on stage but didn’t use it, read a lengthy excerpt, in a strong but halting monotone, from her 1991 piece about a rape in Central Park, the longest essay that the NYRB has ever published, Review cofounder Robert B. Silvers said.
Silvers opened the evening, explaining that the publication was born during a New York City typography strike in 1963, which shuttered seven local papers, leaving book publishers without a venue to advertise new titles. NYRB successfully filled that gap, Silvers said, finding a printer in Bridgeport, CT. For the first issue, contributing writers were told to file “in three weeks, for no money, to show what a book review could be.”
The founding—and to date, Silvers said, only—editorial said that the review wasn’t created solely to take advantage of the strike, “but to take the opportunity which the strike has presented to publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel is needed in America.” (All attendees, a sea of black-framed glasses and vaguely vintage clothing, left with reproductions of NYRB’s first issue tucked in their Paris Review and HarperCollins totes.)
The “sort of literary journal” the editorial invoked was represented by the spectrum of longtime contributors who spoke. Besides Didion, the evening featured John Banville, Mary Beard, Michael Chabon, Mark Danner, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Darryl Pinckney, who read a beautiful piece that detailed his maturation as a writer and as a gay man through his increasing empathy with (fellow NYRB contributor) James Baldwin’s works. After Chabon read a humorous essay about his early attempts at novel writing, the whole group filed onstage for a Q&A session.
The audience must have been satiated by the readings, Silvers said, because beyond the token “Where do you see the Review in another 50 years,” there were no questions for the intellectual heavyweights arrayed before them.