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Reading the rags

Most magazines have close rivals within their genre. One thinks of Harper's and The Atlantic, Time and Newsweek, Fortune and Forbes. But the New York Review of Books occupies a niche of its own - a fortunate situation for an established magazine, but in this case hardly a fortuitous one. Looking back to the Review's first issues, one is struck by how boldly it was designed to stand alone - and also by how well it was designed.

The Review was founded during the New York Times strike in 1963, by a group that included Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason and Barbara Epstein, and Robert Silvers, all still owners of the publication - though it has apparently been approached in recent months by interested buyers. Taking advantage of the absence of the New York Times Book Review and of publishers' unused advertising funds, the founders brought out the new Review - literate, witty, filled with big names and strong opinions, and touted as an alternative to existing book reviews, which Hardwick had characterized (in Harper's) as ''a puddle of treacle.''

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But from the first, the Review was less an ''alternative'' than an addition, a hybrid genre. Comparisons with newspaper book reviews were never apt. For one thing, the Review's pronounced political bias, which colors its selection and treatment of books, establishes it as an independent magazine. For another, despite its name, the Review is not strictly a book review. Its political essays do not necessarily relate to books, and some of its reviews barely mention the books they're purportedly reviewing, using them only as a springboard for broader discussion.

Nor are comparisons with other magazines especially apt. In its focus on current issues and books, the Review distinguishes itself from academic journals with which it shares the same intellectual ground. In its biweekly frequency and newspaper format, it distinguishes itself from tighter politically-oriented magazines, such as The New Republic.

If the Review's peculiar combination of features puts it in a class by itself , the Review also plays those features well. The informal newspaper format, the discursive, nonhomogenized style of the essays convey a sense of immediacy that would be hard to achieve in a monthly or quarterly, a bound magazine, or one more formally edited.

And the Review enhances this sense of immediacy still further: By using celebrated writers (and the same group of writers repeatedly), by allowing them ample space, by highlighting letters which debate an issue, the Review seems almost to be presenting a roundtable discussion focused on our culture. At times , this discussion takes on the tenor of a talk show, where participants seem mainly to be plugging themselves. But at its best, the commentary infuses ideas with drama, and the magazine seems to be not merely reflecting upon culture but actively participating in it, helping to create it.

The Review drew its share of fire in the '60s and '70s, when critics accused it of fashionable politics, power-mongering, exclusivity, even bad grammar. In the '80s, critics seem willing to let the Review enjoy its success. Just past its 20th anniversary, the Review has attained a circulation of 120,000. This is an impressive figure in a country notably indifferent to intellectual publications. It is also a figure that suggests that the Review's one-of-a-kind gamble paid off: for intellectuals, it seems to have become indispensable.

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