Pros: Generally excellent writing, thoughtful and deeply researched articles, interesting topics
Cons: Tends to distract me from all the books I want to read
I received a subscription to the New York Review of Books (hereafter NYRB) as a birthday present last year. I had heard of this publication and seen a copy of it at an acquaintance's house, but I really didn't know much about it, never having read a single issue. I had expressed interest in it, thinking that this periodical devoted itself to professional level reviews of books. That turned out to be rather far from the case, but I've found that I enjoy the magazine nonetheless.
Let's get the technical details out of the way first. The NYRB is published biweekly in most months, for a total of 20 issues per year. It is a large format magazine, bound with staples and resembling a tabloid (though it is not technically a tabloid as it has only four columns per page, not five). The magazine is definitely text-heavy and light on images. When there are images to accompany the articles, they are black-and-white, either caricatures of authors or photographs relating to the article. There are quite a few full page and half page advertisements, some in color, and almost all of them placed by publishing houses or presses. The last few pages of every issue contain the letters to the editor and about a page and a half of classifieds. The simplicity of the layout indicates NYRB is clearly about substance over style. There's nothing fancy or superfluous here; one presumes they spend their budget to attract the best writers.
The NYRB appears to have neither staff writers nor regular features (other than letters to the editor) which appear in each issue. There are no "departments" such as many magazines use to structure each issue. The NYRB seems to thrive by virtue of the generally high quality of their content, rather than by offering predictability to the readership. The articles tend to be lengthy and each issue contains about eight articles on average. In general, this is a very reader-friendly publication, by which I mean that articles are printed on consecutive pages rather than spliced all over the magazine, and the advertisements are not very intrusive. In fact, the advertisements seem extremely well suited to the readership of the publication.
And now for the important stuff
What's actually in this magazine? In general I would say that most articles are written as free-association riffs on two or more books, often tying into some topical news item. The concept is a little difficult to explain, so let me give a few examples. Recent issues have included articles such as "Putin's Trap", referencing the following titles: "Violent Entrepreneurs: the Use of Force in the Making of Russian capitalism," "Across the Moscow River: The World Turned Upside Down" and "State and Evolution: Russia's Search for a Free Market." This article tied in with the Mikhail Khodorkovsky news story as well. Another issue included a marvelous piece by the famous neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. He also referenced a number of books, to wit: The Principles of Psychology, Creative Evolution, The Quest for Consciousness, Wider than the sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness, and four(!) others.
These are substantial, meaty and extremely well-crafted articles, and they tend both to require and commandeer the attention as one reads. They are not the sort of writing one can absorb while waiting distractedly in a doctor's office, or in a busy cafe. There is a distinct lack of sound-bite pabulum and catchy graphics designed to appeal the "lifestyle" crowd. In other words, the austerity of the design and presentation is in no way indicative of a "dumbing down" of content. Footnotes are included in the articles and appear at the bottom of each column of text. I would say that the quality of the writing ranges from highly competent and informative but slightly dull (Wesley Clark) to brilliant and thought provoking (Tony Judt). Most issues contain at least one article written by someone well known, but not known as a writer or journalist. Anyone reasonably well read will recognize a few of the bylines in any given issue.
Topics range from political issues, to the arts, sciences, literature, philosophy, current events and history. Many articles are written by published authors on the works of other published authors; for example James Coetzee on Nadine Gordimer, or Joyce Carol Oates on Anne Tyler. There is usually at least one article devoted to the non-literary arts. For example, recent articles have been devoted to Goya, the photographer Diane Arbus, and the filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino. In general, the articles present a lively mixture of criticism, analysis, commentary, comparison and exposition that leaves me feeling highly informed. In fact, one of the benefits of this publication is the feeling that I don't need to go out and find all the books referenced in a particular article. Because these works have been summarized and digested so well by the writers, having read them, I feel (rightly or wrongly) sufficiently well informed on the topic to forego reading the books myself.
The tone of the writing is fairly intellectual, sometimes nearly to the point of sounding academic. My guess is that the target demographic of this magazine is a moderately liberal, upper middle-class, highly educated avid reader in their mid-30's to 50's, likely with a degree or two in fine arts, humanities or literature and most probably someone who spends upwards of $500 per year on books.
The NYRB appears quite liberal in its opinions, though there is of course some range, since the writers change from month to month. Clearly the editorial staff are no fans of the Bush White House. Not having read the publication for all that long, I can't say for sure how they would treat a less....conservative administration. I suspect that the NYRB would be happy to dish out sharp criticism to just about anyone in a position of power.
Just as a side note, not long ago I picked up a copy of the London Review of Books, thinking that the two periodicals must be related and therefore of similar quality. I was sorely disappointed and also quite surprised to discover that the LRB compared very poorly to its kin across the pond. The LRB left much to be desired in terms of the quality of its writing. And few of its articles held my interest.
My year's subscription to this magazine will be up in couple of months. I will probably choose to renew the subscription out of my own pocket. The magazine has been a pleasure to read and offers me information and perspectives that I have not found in other publications. I would recommend it to those interested in the range of topics addressed by NYRB.