Today is the 30th birthday of the not-so-venerable but always respectable London Review of Books. It hatched from a crack in the world of British literary journalism when a printing strike shut down the Times, following the lead of the New York Review of Books 16 years earlier. In fact, early issues of the London Review arrived folded into the NYRB—"marsupially," according to the Financial Times. Karl Miller was the editor-in-chief, Mary-Kay Wilmers the deputy editor (and sugar mummy). The paper broke out on its own soon enough, and never looked back:
From the start the Miller/Wilmers doctrine differed from that of the TLS, which aimed to “notice” all that was newly published and worthy of note. The LRB front cover logo was “THE LONDON REVIEW of Books” – the last two words being smaller. As the typography signalled, it was the review that mattered as much as the book under review.
30 years later it's still going strong, reassuring the world that there will always be a place for the serious long-form print essay. It has kept up with the times: There is a fine-looking, topical blog, and the archives since September 2000 are available and fully searchable online for subscribers. But like its American strikebreaker cousin, it's still austerely clean-lined and easy on the eyes—a reminder of how good it is to read something on a plain white foldable page every once in a while. As the Guardian points out,
Oblivious to fashion as it is, the LRB would probably be out of time in
any era. Yet, its publisher Nicholas Spice… says it might "have been comfortable 100 or 200 years ago". Certainly there's something old-fashioned about its
austere, text-heavy format and long, discursive pieces aimed at the
"general intelligent readership" that most modern media companies do
their damnedest to avoid. But old-fashioned doesn't mean moribund.
What's easy to forget, in the face of its elder-statesmanlike presentation, is that this was indie journalism. In an age when that mostly ran the gamut from academic journals to xeroxed zines, the LRB was independently financed, toed no party lines, and printed exactly what it wanted. 1979 was the year the Clash released London Calling, and it's a safe bet that there was a slice of the population interested in both. It's certainly true now.
This is not Anglophile reading by any measure, and it deliberately sidesteps predictable political doctrine. Its focus is global, the undertone being that we all need to remember there is no center of the world any more, literary or otherwise. And the fact that for 30 years the LRB has answered to no authority other than its own extremely high intellectual standards is, I'm sorry, totally punk rock. Don't let the dignified trappings fool you. The London Review does just what it wants, and does it very well indeed. I'm always pleased to see it in my mailbox every two weeks—excuse me, fortnightly—and have my horizons broadened a bit. Here's to another 30 years of rockin' on.