At Town Hall: Readings and Reflections

Town Hall stage.jpg

Beowulf Sheehan

Daniel Mendelsohn, Michael Chabon, John Banville, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney, Mary Beard, and Mark Danner, February 5, 2013

On February 5, 2013, The New York Review celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with an evening of readings and reflections at Town Hall in New York City. Contributors John Banville, Mary Beard, Michael Chabon, Mark Danner, Joan Didion, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Darryl Pinckney read from their work and spoke about their relationship with the magazine. We are glad to provide this record of the occasion.

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The first speaker was Joan Didion, who read from her 1991 essay “New York: Sentimental Journeys,” on the Central Park jogger case.

One reason the victim in this case could be so readily abstracted, and her situation so readily made to stand for that of the city itself, was that she remained, as a victim of rape, unnamed in most press reports. Although the American and English press convention of not naming victims of rape (adult rape victims are named in French papers) derives from the understandable wish to protect the victim, the rationalization of this-special protection rests on a number of doubtful, even magical, assumptions.

Next was John Banville, who reflected on literary reputation, celebrity, and a review he wrote in 1997, “The European Irishman,” about the work of the great, unfashionable writer Hubert Butler.

It is one of the qualities of a great literary journal to be unimpressed by reputations. A reputation is easily come by, especially in these days when the cult of celebrity is so pervasive—appear more than three times on television, even with egg on your face, even with handcuffs on your wrists, and the goddess of fame is bound to print her mark upon your brow. A responsible editor must take note of contemporary, and temporary, fixations—I note a review in a recent issue of The New York Review of Fifty Shades of Grey—but will always be ready to consider the overlooked, the under-­appreciated, the obscure.

Mary Beard spoke about the Review’s relation to the classics, and the “inextricable embeddedness of the classical tradition within Western culture.” She began with a consideration of Jonathan Miller’s review of John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which appeared in the first issue:

At first sight, Miller’s objections were aimed at the kind of in-your-face pedantry of the book. The title, he observed, “grindingly reinforced by the tasteful fragment of Greek sculpture on the front cover,” was a heavy-handed warning of its “significance.” And he couldn’t bear the pseudo-academic glossary which listed every damn classical wood nymph who had a walk on part in the plot. “The work collapses finally,” he wrote, “under its freight of classical reference.” But Miller was raising bigger issues than pedantry. In fact, his review is a reflection on a set of questions that has been important in The New York Review throughout the fifty years of its history: what is the role of the ancient world, or the past more generally, in our own world? How engaged, for good or ill, does modern culture remain with the classical past and its reinventions? Have we lost the classics, or are we always refinding them?

Darryl Pickney discussed his lifelong engagement with the writing of James Baldwin:

I had no idea why I was so absorbed in James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, but everyone else in the car knew. My father had been driving for so long he gripped the wheel with paper towels. It was 1967 and we were days from Indianapolis on our way to Disneyland. We were actually on Route 66 and I didn’t care. I was thirteen years old and I wasn’t causing trouble, sitting between my two sisters with Baldwin’s novel about a man’s love for another man in my face. I remember my mother glancing back at me. We’d driven through a dust storm a while ago, but I’d missed it.

Mark Danner discussed his time as an editorial assistant at the Review and as a contributor from the campaign trail.

I started at the New York Review, the offices of which were then very, very charitably called Dickensian. I actually began to think of it as a kind of alpine landscape in which all of the mountains, ridges, cols, passes were made of books. And these books, every hour and a half or so would collapse in a thundering roar and one of my main jobs was to pick those books up. Bob would lurk behind piles of them, smoke would rise from his cigarillo which he then smoked obsessively and occasionally a piece of paper would be flung over the top of the books with his very distinctive pencil-editing and my job was to type a new version up. Which is, by the way, the way I learned how to edit and the way I learned how to write.


Daniel Mendelsohn reas from his 2006 piece, “September 11 at the Movies,” a review of United 93 by Paul Greengrass and World Trade Center by Oliver Stone.

The release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was greeted almost immediately by a controversy over how accurately the film represented the US government’s use of torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Ladin. A controversy given the picture’s claims to a journalistic scrupulousness that has raised larger questions about the relationship between entertainment and journalism, reality and dramatization, facts and fiction.

Michael Chabon read from a piece about writing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

I returned to chill gray Oakland from sunny Orange County, to the little basement room in my mother’s house where I did some of my finest feeling lonely and homesick. There I ventured through a few more pages of Swann’s Way and fretted about all those people I was soon going to be surrounded and taught by, people who were and knew themselves to be proud practitioners of novelism. Was everyone obliged to write a novel? Could I write a novel? Did I want to write a novel? What the hell was a novel, anyway, when you came right down to it? A really, really, really long short story? I hoped so, because that was the only thing I knew for certain that I could manage, sort of, to write.

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