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Where Does One Start?

A guide to reading WFB.

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.

Gerard Alexander

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.

Richard Brookhiser

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.”

#ad#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.

Lee Edwards

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.

Robert Ferrigno

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.

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David Horowitz

My favorite Buckley book is Overdrive which recounts a week in the life of this great man. An ordinary week and an unbelievable week because Bill Buckley gave 24/7 its meaning. I like this book because it shows the conservative intellectual as an activist — and reminds us that a large part of Buckley’s enormous influence on conservatism flowed from his activism, including of course the creation and editorial direction of National Review. Overdrive, which documents the grueling schedule he imposed on himself, is an inspiration to others to take the battle for liberty seriously and to put their all into it. This probably reflects the feelings of an ex-radical towards the complacency that attends the very concept of conservatism. Too many conservatives take the cause too casually and fail to appreciate that the cultural environment we inhabit and are up against requires constant effort on our part to put it right.

#ad#My introduction to Buckley was ironically (or appropriately, depending on how you look at it) a biography written by a leftist — John Judis’s Patron Saint of the Conservatives. What impressed me was Buckley’s independence of mind and willingness to stand up to unsavory elements in the movement in order to shape a conservatism that truly reflected the principles of the American Founding. For students I would recommend Buckley’s manifesto books God and Man at Yale and Up from Liberalism, and for greater depth, Miles Gone By. And if they’re looking for a biography of Buckley, they should probably start with the one written by conservatives — Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne’s Strictly Right.

David Horowitz is author of numerous books, most recently The Professors, The Shadow Party, and Indoctrination U.

Michael Novak

A good place for a new reader to begin is Bill’s most brilliant essays (some of them included in Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography). Four years ago, I had the privilege of writing a brief note for National Review Online on that pleasurable book. In all the praise of Bill Buckley’s importance in the political sphere, which has poured out in the last few days, too little attention has been paid to his sheerly literary accomplishments, to his craftsmanship, and to his range — both broad and deep. One day soon, the guardians at the gates of the literary canon for the past century may at last come to recognize Bill’s high literary merit.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

George H. Nash

When reading Bill Buckley’s works, where should one begin? My bookshelves contain more than four linear feet of his publications. One could blindfold oneself and choose a title at random and not go wrong. With Buckley, it is impossible to go wrong.

Still, if forced to choose, I would recommend that a newcomer start with Up From Liberalism. The title alone conveys something of the subversive wit, daring, and insouciance that made Buckley a conservative hero in the 1950s and a scourge of his ideological foes. Rereading this little volume today, I was struck by its relevance and vitality. To be sure, some of its subject matter is dated, but its analytical acumen, polemical verve, and critique of modern liberalism continue to hit home.

So: for Buckley the conservative, Buckley the controversialist, and Buckley the spirited wordsmith, begin with Up From Liberalism For other dimensions of this most multifaceted man, I recommend a book that he did not, alas, live to publish: a compilation of his obituary essays. Nowhere was Buckley’s gift for friendship and personal portraiture better displayed than in the more than 200 such essays that he crafted (mostly for National Review) — appraisals composed under acute time pressure and often amidst feelings of deep personal loss. Buckley’s incandescent personality shines forth in these shrewd and often humorous farewells. I hope that someone at NR will assemble an anthology of these gems.

George H. Nash is the author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.

Richard John Neuhaus

There are so many but, were I to recommend one, it would be Cruising Speed. It catches Bill at the height of his powers, exulting with gratitude in the gifts given and so generously shared.

– Richard John Neuhaus is editor-in-chief of First Things magazine.

Jay Nordlinger

My favorite work of nonfiction is The Unmaking of a Mayor. This is maybe the most dazzling book about American politics I know. (Of course, I love the autobiographical volumes, too, and everything else.)

My favorite novel is Stained Glass, the second of the Oakes series. As a reviewer mentioned at the time, it cuts very, very close to the bone. The book is not just entertaining but profound.

As for a collection: I love Right Reason — it hit me at the right time — but then, I love them all. I love Buckley: The Right Word, which is the language collection. (My review of this book introduced me to Bill — I mean, personally — and lent my life an amazing new aspect.)

The matter of an essay: There are thousands of them, of course, and I’ll throw a dart: the essay on appearing on Jack Paar’s Tonight show. (You will find it in the collection Rumbles Left and Right.) A tour de force, one of the most spectacular pieces of writing extant.

A young reader may wish to start out with Bill’s autobiographical collection, Miles Gone By. Or he might like Overdrive. Or he might like the collection of speeches. I don’t know: A reader of any age can sort of dip in anywhere. Check out the catalogue, and see what grabs you.

I had occasion to say in print recently that Bill was my favorite writer. (Told him that all the time. He’d usually grin, and wave his hand.) And some of the best writing he did, frankly, was private. But, of course, that is true of us all.

– Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review.

 

Matthew Scully

Not sure it ranks among his very best columns, but a personal favorite of mine — for the wit and efficiency of the Buckley style — is an October 8, 1991, piece recounting the eighth wedding of Elizabeth Taylor, entitled “Eight Down, Two to Go” (p. 26-28 in Happy Days Were Here Again collection).

Matthew Scully is a former literary editor for National Review, speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and author of Dominion.

Jason Lee Steorts

For skiers, I would recommend WFB’s short piece on Alta, Utah, which can be found in Miles Gone By. Bill was, apart from my grandfather, the only person I ever met who loved that place as much as I do.

I have never read anything by WFB and thought, “This is not worth reading.” The initiate cannot go wrong. But if asked which sample of Bill’s prose most moves me, I would cite the speech he gave at NR’s 30th-anniversary dinner, before an audience that included Ronald Reagan. A condensed version of this speech can be found in Let Us Talk of Many Things, under the title “The Blood of Our Fathers Ran Strong.” Bill recounts a conversation had many years earlier with Whittaker Chambers, who told him that it would be pointless to found a publication such as National Review. I quote:

Don’t you see? [Chambers] said. The West is doomed, so that any effort to save it is correspondingly doomed to failure. I drop this ink stain on the bridal whiteness of this fleeted evening only to acknowledge soberly that we are still a long way from establishing, for sure, that Whittaker Chambers was wrong. But that night, challenged by his pessimism, I said to him that if it were so that providence had rung up our license on liberty, stamping it as expired, the Republic deserved a journal that would argue the historical and moral case that we ought to have survived: that, weighing the alternative, the culture of liberty deserves to survive. So that even if the worst were to happen, the journal in which I hoped he would collaborate might serve, so to speak, as the diaries of Anne Frank had served, as absolute, dispositive proof that she should have survived, in place of her tormentors — who ultimately perished . . .

I was nineteen years old when the bomb went off over Hiroshima, and last week I turned sixty. During the interval I have lived a free man in a free and sovereign country. . . . [Mr. President,] I pray that my son, when he is sixty, and your son, when he is sixty, and the sons and daughters of our guests tonight will live in a world from which the great ugliness that has scarred our century has passed. Enjoying their freedoms, they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong.

The beauty of what Bill believed was matched only by the beauty with which he expressed it.

Jason Lee Steorts is managing editor of National Review.

George Weigel

I once told Bill that Stained Glass was his best novel, and my hunch is that he agreed. It’s got all the dash and wit of the other Blackford Oakes books, but on this occasion, Bill added to the mix very serious reflections on the moral dilemmas of statecraft. It’s as good an introduction as any to Buckley-in-full.

– George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

 

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