Discarded pile of booksNedad Stojkovic / https://www.flickr.com/photos/nenadstojkovic/49971632777

There are plenty of magazines (or "zines") in the Cambridge student scene, many of which are small, and “extremely niche”— as the The Cambridge Review of Books  Head of Editorial Matilda Sidel puts it. Yet, speaking to Matilda, it’s clear to me that The Cambridge Review of Books (CRoB) is an altogether different affair. 

Of course, the name itself is misleading. The CRoB magazine includes creative writing, translations, long-form articles, and (occasionally) reviews. I question the name choice.  I’m told by Matilda that it’s a reference to the London Review of Books that should be “taken loosely”. CRoB is a magazine that celebrates long-form articles and essays that sometimes get lost in publications with a more news-ward bent. 

She sees reading in print to be an “act of participation”

Beyond the long-form style, it’s pressed upon me that CRoB stands out by being a print-focused magazine. Matilda concedes that online publication of some articles is unavoidable in the digital age. But she's quick to note that there’s something about the material quality of holding paper and the spirit of passing copies around which reading online can’t match. She sees reading in print to be an “act of participation”, one that “encourages reflection”, and lends a sense of permanence to a writer's work. 

To me, something about CRoB feels different. But it’s not a feeling that I’m talking to someone who’s polishing the silver to impress. Rather it's that Matilda is simply someone who cares about what she’s doing. When I ask the obligatory question "paperback or Kindle?" I’m regaled with a story I think lots of readers will find familiar: the pleasure of reading slowly and leafing through paper, the “lived-in” sense a book lends to a room; the joys (and financial horrors) of second-hand bookshops. It’s also fair to say that Matilda is acutely aware of the challenges facing print publications. The concession to digital articles and social media presence is a “helpful” evil in her push for engagement. 

This isn’t to say that CRoB doesn’t have strong foundations. Matilda tells me there is a passionate team behind the magazine. The team is "extremely excited" about the prospect of another issue, having just met for the first time this year. The zine’s collaborative outlook is stressed through CRoB’s focus on a “writer-editor dialogue” and “slow burn essays.” In Cambridge time, the turnaround of such pieces can take quite a long time. But the care taken in demonstrating the best of a writer’s abilities is clearly shown.

The care taken in demonstrating the best of a writer’s abilities, shows

It’s also plain during the course of our interview that CRoB is entering a new phase. Hampered by Covid-19 and (as Matilda delicately puts it) “issues with publicity”, this term marks only the second launch event since its first in March 2020. Matilda explains that the benefit of these events goes beyond just publicity. It represents a chance to form a community of contributors and editors – a “virtuous circle” that regularly engages with the long-form journalism CRoB looks to promote.

However, Matilda is keen to stress the “central theme of accessibility”. Combating the notion of elitism is something on her mind, especially given the position CRoB occupies between your average supervision essay and a 2am tweet about Taylor Swift. “Serious but playful” is an epithet that appears several times throughout our conversation. She’s also keen to get across to me that while articles should have a thread, her favourite recent piece – ‘Kyiv’s Magnolias’ – is something far more personable and lacking any sense of artificiality. Telling the story of a migrant from Kyiv, such pieces sit alongside articles like "Unpicking the Ick", which help drag CRoB into 21st century pop culture. 

Having suffered from a lack of publicity last year, CRoB is keen to draw more engagement, with writing submissions for its next issue open until October 10. Such pitches needn’t be airtight, complete ideas, nor fit a particular publication genre. The beauty, as Matilda put it, of CRoB is the fluidity and flexibility that it offers writers. Whilst the team may release commissions to give a flavour of what they’re looking for, there’s a relish in the unexpected submissions which take the magazine in a different direction to what was planned. 

Looking beyond this term’s issue, which is likely to be launched towards the end of Michaelmas, Matilda is excited by the prospect of spoken word and conducting more interviews with literary figures. Having taken over the reins to “ensure its survival”, she is now working hard to celebrate a medium often lost in our digital, fast-paced world.