What a Democracy Needs in an Editor

The incomparable skill of Robert Silvers, who presided over the New York Review of Books for more than a half-century.

Robert Silvers at the White House in 2013.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Silvers, who died on Monday morning, was the editor of the New York Review of Books since 1963, meaning that for more than 50 years he presided over the leading literary magazine in the English language.

I was privileged to work with him on numerous occasions, going back to 1992. He was not only a giant, but also the incarnation of what a democracy needs: civility, considerateness, fairness, authenticity, humility and unfailing attention to detail, which, in his hands, turned out to be a form of love.

With Bob, every editorial experience was unique, but it always followed the same general pattern. He would have an idea for an essay -- on, say, the limits of paternalism, the role of the Supreme Court, free markets, the nature of morality. You would send him a draft, and, sooner or later, you would receive his comments.

They would be unfailingly courteous, but sometimes they would be devastating. “There’s just one paragraph we didn’t quite understand,” he would write, adding, “I am sure it’s only because of our ignorance.” As he laid out his supposed inability to understand, it would emerge that your argument was hopelessly unclear, unconvincing or foolish.

At times, you would think that the essay was doomed. But he would respond, “Well, maybe you could put it another way?”

Some of his writers were famous for their polemical skills, but, in my own experience, he valued fairness and honesty above all else. I had only one difficult editorial experience with him, and, in retrospect, the difficulty stemmed from his (undoubtedly accurate) sense that I was reading an author unfairly -- that I was putting his argument in the weakest possible light. Bob did not appreciate unearned victories. In his view, it was far more important to be clear on the underlying arguments than to establish that one person was right and another wrong.

After an essay was finally on track, he would send an edited copy back -- the famous “A Galley.” Your argument would be better, and your prose would be cleaner. But on every page, there would be his cramped handwriting, asking for page references for every quotation, questioning word choices, inserting paragraph breaks, pointing to recent work from the Congressional Research Service, invoking arguments from James Madison, John Marshall, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant.

After you responded to “A Galley,” you would get “B Galley,” with still more questions and corrections, more references, meticulous editing and, occasionally, a serious concern. A direct quotation: “After many readings, I appreciated the changes you made, but in our ignorance my colleagues and I still had questions.”

When an essay was far along and close to ready to run, he would occasionally call to say, “We just have a few final questions.” My heart would sink. Was a conversation actually necessary? Had he found a serious defect? Wouldn’t email be better? Were we going to go over whole sentences, word by word?

Yes, yes, no and yes. Maybe there was a new book, hopelessly obscure but brilliant and relevant, and I had to take account of it. Maybe someone had just published historical research that cast doubt on my claims. (How did he always know about that?) Maybe a phrase struck him as cute, faddish or vulgar. (He didn’t like that.) Maybe I had repeated a word in two consecutive sentences. Maybe a comma should be a semicolon.

Bob was always kind, and it seemed as if he had all the time in the world. But he was also fierce. He never let anything slide. He spoke, on occasion, of his responsibility to his readers, and he felt that keenly. But I think his sense of responsibility went even deeper than that; it involved the integrity of the enterprise itself.

While he raised questions and doubts, he never inserted his own voice. But there was one exception. In an essay on happiness, in which I explored efforts to measure people’s subjective well-being, he thought that I was missing three crucial features of human life.

Those things were the importance of culture; the idea of devotion; and the experience of creation (“its pleasures and disappointments and intensities” -- his words, not mine).

Bob made our own culture immeasurably better, and he lived a life of devotion. He created something of enduring value -- with, I think, the most pleasurable intensity. We will not see his like again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Cass R Sunstein at

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    Katy Roberts at

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