A Light in the Dark

This is one in a series of reminiscences by staff members of The New York Review of Books about their time working at the magazine.

The great Northeast Blackout of August 2003 passed without Robert Silvers’s notice—or at least without him giving the impression of noticing. While I and the other assistants, racing to the windows to see what was happening outside, frantically speculated about terrorist attacks, Bob sat at his desk, resolutely editing a manuscript about Mesopotamian art of the third millennium BC. Once in a while he dictated a note, which presented a new challenge because the computer was dead and our generation of assistants were unaccustomed to writing in shorthand. After several minutes Barbara’s assistant came into the office to ask what we should do; Barbara had also continued to work, and showed no indication of stopping.

A woman came into the office to announce that the building was being evacuated. She left, and the editing continued.

Twenty minutes later there was a commotion in the hall. A man from building management appeared and gruffly explained that we were the only people remaining in the entire building. Everyone else had left when the lights first went out, hours earlier. We had to evacuate. He reminded us that we’d need to take the stairs.

Bob produced a flashlight—from his desk, his private office, his sleeve, I have no idea—and retrieved Barbara. We filed out of the office, Bob leading the charge. We entered the pitch-black stairwell with some trepidation; Bob’s flashlight lit the way. While we waited for our eyes to adjust, Bob, with alarming speed, hurtled down the first flight of the stairs to the landing below, pivoted, and pointed the flashlight upward so that Barbara could see the stairs. With cautious steps she descended, Bob’s light pointing out each step. The rest of us followed behind. Once Barbara had safely reached the landing, Bob was off again, down the next flight of stairs, pivoting, and shining his light up to Barbara’s feet. We proceeded like that—sprint, pivot, shine—all the way down five flights, until we emerged into the chaos of the dimmed city. I only noticed then that Bob had carried a sack of manuscripts down the stairs with him. He went to the park nearby to edit in the fading sunlight on a bench and continued editing that evening at home—by flashlight, candlelight, or whatever other magical illumination he is able to summon.

Nathaniel Rich, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, was an editorial assistant from 2002 through 2003. His second novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, was published in April.