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Success tip: Read "The New York Review of Books"

9 February 2013

“The New York Review of Books” is a magazine published in New York which comes out fortnightly. The pages are quite large, somewhat bigger than a UK tabloid newspaper. As you would expect from the title, the main content is book reviews with some other material.

2013 represents its fiftieth year of publication. I first came across it in 1969 in the Junior Combination Room at Clare College, Cambridge as an undergraduate. At that time I did not realise how relatively young the publication was. Ever since I first encountered it, I have always considered it the most intellectual publication I know.

I subscribed to it for a few years after graduating but stopped when I became so busy at work that I was unable to keep up with reading it alongside all the other material that I needed to read. In my forties after eating my lunchtime sandwiches at my desk at Price Waterhouse, I would often walk over to the nearby Manchester Central Library to read part of the latest issue. In 2012 I restarted my subscription since, although very busy, I have more time for reading now that I am retired than I did while I was a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Reading The New York Review of Books is the fastest way that I can think of to become more intellectually aware and more rounded. The reason is that most of the time we read material that already connects with subjects we are interested in. For example, as a private investor I read “The Investors Chronicle”. However The New York Review of Books makes me engage with material that I would otherwise never encounter. The book reviews are so long and so detailed that you almost feel as if you have read the book! While not strictly true, reading the review will nevertheless tell you a great deal about what the book covers.

An overview of the latest issue

The best way for me to illustrate this is to list below the contents of the latest issue which I have just finished reading, Volume LX, Number 2 which is dated February 7 – 20, 2013. Where possible I have linked to the reviewers' profiles as most are very distinguished experts in their subjects.

“Zero Dark Thirty”, the film directed by Kathryn Bigelow reviewed by Steve Coll

Steve Coll is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and currently CEO of the New America Foundation. The review covers two full pages. It explores in detail the question of whether the film incorrectly leads the viewer to believe that evidence obtained by torture played a significant part in tracking down Osama Bin Laden.

“Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” by Andrew Solomon, reviewed by Jerome Groopman

Jerome Groopman holds the Dina and Raphael Recanati Chair of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. This book explores the nature of identity, particularly in the case of families with disability such as deafness and is written by somebody who is Jewish and gay. I skipped the review as, with the best will in the world, I do not have time to read all of the contents of the magazine.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” by EL James, reviewed by Tim Parks

Tim Parks is a novelist and Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan. In this review he addresses the question of why the book is so popular.

“Visual Art in the Oslo Opera House” by Jorn Mortenson and “A House to Die In”, an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London both reviewed by Martin Filler

Martin Filler is an American architecture critic. I decided to skip this three-page article.

Obama’s Big and Quiet Transformation by Michael Tomasky

Michael Tomasky is the editor in chief of "Democracy: A Journal of Ideas." The politics articles at the New York Review of Books tend to be from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. This article looks back briefly at Obama’s first term and considers how his behaviour has changed since re-election.

Diving Deep into Danger by Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich is an American novelist. This was a fascinating article about the biology and technology of diving starting with the first dive to a depth of 1,000 feet made in 1962 by Hannes Keller.

“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940 – 1965” by William Manchester and Paul Reid; “A Daughter’s Tale: The Memoir of Winston Churchill’s Youngest Child” by Mary Soames, both reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a British journalist and author of "The Strange Death of Tory England", one of many books which seem familiar but which I have not read! In the course of reviewing these two books over three pages, the reviewer goes into some detail regarding Churchill’s strengths and weaknesses. He also has a number of vignettes about gifts that British prime ministers have given American presidents and the number of busts of Sir Winston Churchill that may or may not be in the White House.

“Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” by Thomas Nagel reviewed by H. Allen Orr

H. Allen Orr is Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester. This is a short 130 page book by a professor of philosophy which is reviewed in three full pages. The reviewer explains and challenges the author’s objections to Darwinian evolution and the materialist explanation of life and mind and his alternative proposal of natural teleology.

“Silent House” by Orhan Pamuk reviewed by Neil Ascherson

Neil Ascherson is a journalist whose work I read for many years. Orhan Pamuk is a very important Turkish novelist. This book was originally published in Turkish in 1983 but has just been translated into English. In two full pages the reviewer draws us into the book and the political situation of Turkey around 1980 after the military coup.

“A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico” by Amy S Greenberg reviewed by James M. MacPherson.

MacPherson is Professor of American History Emeritus at Princeton. His 1989 book “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. I read it in 1997 while recuperating from an operation having been given a copy by a client who knew my interest in American history. It was fascinating.

MacPherson spends two pages reviewing this history of the Mexican American war. While I watched the film about the Alamo starring John Wayne when I was a teenager I knew very little about the war until I read this review.

“Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel” by Hadara Lazar, reviewed by Avishai Margalit

Avishai Margalit is George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.This book covers the period 1940 – 1948 and was originally published in Hebrew in 1990 and has just been translated into English. The reviewer explores British, Zionist and Palestinian narratives and memories of that time as well as reflecting upon Israel’s conduct since it occupied the West Bank in 1967. He sees a fundamental worsening of Israeli behaviour after the war of 1973.

“Masters of Doing Nothing at All” by Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer was born in England of Indian parents and is the author of numerous books on crossing cultures. This article consists of a long review of the work of Natsume Soseki whose novel “The Gate” was published in 1910. Soseki was born in 1867, a year before the Meiji Restoration, and was sent to England to study English literature. The reviewer explains how in Soseki’s writings very little seems to happen but how much emotional tension there is below the surface and uses that as a way of helping us to understand Japanese society more generally.

“Egypt: The Rule of the Brotherhood” by Yasmine El Rashidi

Yasmine El Rashidi is the author of "The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution" and lives in Cairo. This 3 ½ page article reviews recent political developments in Egypt, with the vividness only possible when written by someone who lives there and who is involved both at street level andm thanks to her father, at senior political levels.


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