National Review Online surveyed a random sampling of William F. Buckley Jr. readers — some of them friends, all of them fans — for their favorite Buckley readers, and, specifically, what they might recommend to a newcomer to WFB’s writings. Here’s what they had to say.
I remember NR gracing our house — and animating our dinner conversations — when I was a kid. I felt the loss yesterday, and still do today. Last night I picked up a WFB essay that I’d recommend to all: “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” which became the basis for a book, I believe. This essay may not be one of his statements of what conservatism means, but it put on display his deep concern for justice, his razor-sharp sense of intellectual honesty, and his determination to show how many conservatives were not guilty of the thought-crimes of which they are so often accused. In other words, the essay showcased his intellectual rigor and his compassion as much as anything he wrote.
– Gerard Alexander is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
My favorite book is The Unmaking of a Mayor, full of still-useful information on New York City and New York City politics, but also a primer on the political art in general, and an on-the-fly self-portrait of its author.
His best column was his defense of J.S. Bach against some teenager who had called him an “old dead punk.”
His best letter? It’s a tie.
1. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote him, in the midst of a tiff, referring to “National Review or National Enquirer or whatever your magazine calls itself,” to which WFB answered, “Now suppose I began a letter, ‘Dear Arthur or Dear Barfer, or whatever you call yourself’?”
2. A stranger, Louis Prickman M.D., wrote an ill-tempered letter about some point that began “Dear Bill.” WFB made a brief reply, which ended, “May I call you by your nickname?”
– Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor for National Review and a presidential historian.
T. Kenneth Cribb Jr.
Perhaps my favorite passage in the work of William F. Buckley — at least, a passage which I find very telling — comes not in a book or an essay but in a speech he delivered in 1986. Bill’s energy was, of course, prodigious, and his interests universal. He was often described as a renaissance man, and he was liable to pop up anywhere.
I remember flipping channels in the late 1960s to glimpse Bill Buckley’s familiar visage on — of all shows — Laugh-In.
“Mr. Buckley,” he was asked. “I notice that on your own program you’re always sitting down. Is this because you can’t think on your feet?”
Said Buckley, “It is hard . . . to stand up . . . under the weight . . . of all that I know.”
After the laughter subsided, there persisted the faint tincture of self-mockery, Bill poking fun at his own image as a renaissance man — an image that toastmasters reinforced from coast to coast, with knowing references to the harpsichord, the New York mayoral race, the yachting, the novels.
A renaissance man. The term conjures notions of intellectual agility, effortless competence, grace, worldly wisdom, and savoir faire. And Bill Buckley was certainly all of that. But listen to Buckley himself, in his 1986 speech, define the renaissance man:
He is not the man who, with aplomb, can fault the béarnaise sauce at Maxim’s before attending a concert at which he detects a musical solecism, returning to write an imperishable sonnet before preparing a lecture on civics that the next day will enthrall an auditorium. No: the renaissance man is, I think, someone who bows his head before the great unthreatened truths and, while admitting and even encouraging all advances in science, nevertheless knows enough to know that the computer does not now exist, nor ever shall, that has the power to repeal the basic formulas of civilization.
It is in service to those great unthreatened truths — to the unseen things that do not die — that Bill Buckley strove mightily and well through the long decades of a remarkable life.
– T. Kenneth Cribb Jr. is the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
There are a thousand gems, of course, but my favorite is Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography. Bill chose not to write a memoir, but he did leave us this selection of previously published writings providing “a narrative survey of my life, at work and play.” (And what a prodigious worker and irrepressible player.)
In his foreword, Bill says he hopes that Miles Gone By will serve much the same purpose as a formal autobiography and “will give pleasure.” Indeed it does while demonstrating it is possible to remain true to one’s principles and faith and to make a difference in the world — in fact, to change the world.
I recommend it as a first read of WFB but feel obliged to caution the reader: Be careful — it could change your life.
– Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation.
My favorite WFB book is his autobiography, Miles Gone By, which gave me insight into the man whose intellect I had so long admired. I first encountered Mr. Buckley through his television show, Firing Line, directed there by a beloved aunt, a committed liberal who treasured Mr. Buckley’s incisive logic, facility with language, and his defense of faith at a time when God seemed risible to the smart set. His columns in National Review became a part of my own development, and I cribbed shamelessly from him in arguments with my peers.
When his autobiography was published I read it immediately, I think looking for some insight into how he became . . . himself. His privileged birth gave him opportunities, but it seemed to me that the essential quality I valued most in Mr. Buckley, his fearlessness, his willingness to go against the grain, to see things as they truly were, was not helped by his station. In fact, if anything, elite status encourages a bland intellectual conformity, and made his writings even more laudable. Mr. Buckley’s voice in his autobiography is honest, forthright, witty, and self-deprecating, the perfect summation of the man. Hard to imagine how you can miss someone you never met, but I do.
– Robert Ferrigno is author of Sins of the Assassin.