Books, ‘As Close to Immortality as the Written Word Can Expect’

(Dreamstime image: Yulan)
A Firing Line conversation with Philip Terzian

Philip Terzian, the literary editor of The Weekly Standard since 2005, has become one of the deans of the book-reviewing trade. He is much admired for his ability to make taste and set trends by suggesting but rarely imposing his own highly cultivated views on matters both aesthetic and ideological. His supervision of the magazine’s back-of-the-book pages is not only old-school but unfashionable, in that he produces the section for readers rather than fellow reviewers.

Terzian is also admired, and in some quarters envied, for having persuaded the Standard’s proprietor to pay him a living wage to read books — a pursuit, his friends suggest, that would consume his day even if he were unemployed and destitute. Unabashedly, Phil Terzian loves books, even arguably unlovable books, and his affections are contagious.

Among readers, that is. He stands in resolute opposition to digital marketers and, especially, to Big Data. He doesn’t want to be told what will “fit” with his personal interests; he doesn’t want to be told what he should read because a computer once recorded his enthusiasm for a similar book. He wants to be surprised and delighted by a book he stumbles across, by a book that may not consolidate an old interest but kindle a new one. He is by his own admission an undisciplined reader and encourages his flock to be equally amateurish.

Terzian’s political views remain something of a curiosity. One of his early writing gigs was as a speechwriter for the Democratic National Committee but, manifestly, he has grown in office. Ensconced at an intensely political magazine, which is published in a city with hardened political categories — Washington, D.C. — he has distinguished himself by being predictably unpredictable.

Prior to his magazine work, Terzian spent long tours in the newspaper business, including distinguished service at the Los Angeles Times and the Providence Journal. In 2010, he published a book, Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century, and then gamely took his own turn in the reviewers’ barrel. After 40 years in print journalism, Phil Terzian is comprehensively informed about the world of publishing and, more broadly, about America’s information needs and appetites.

Freeman: Give us a sense of the book world today. Are the vital signs strong — compared with, say, the sagging fortunes of newspapers?

Terzian: The book world seems in reasonable health to me, and whatever trends I can perceive would probably have occurred with or without the Internet. The exception, I suppose, would be the decline of newspaper book-review sections; it’s a net loss to readers but hasn’t affected publishing. The way we buy books has changed, of course, but just as photography didn’t end painting, books are still being commissioned, written, published, and purchased. I guessed a decade ago that certain books might end up exclusively online, and that seems to have happened, but the number of titles has grown, along with small — maybe I should call them boutique — publishing houses. And best of all, the appetite for books as physical objects, the instinct to own a bound volume, has remained steady. Even among Millennials.

Freeman: That’s good to hear, and especially for us print dinosaurs. One of the collateral effects of the near-death of newspapers is that the nation’s reporting infrastructure has withered. At the risk of oversimplification, not to say grandiosity, would it be fair to say that books are to understanding what newspapers are to information?

Journalists like to say that they’re writing ‘the first draft of history,’ and that’s a charitable way to describe the difference between information and knowledge.

Terzian: That’s certainly true. Journalists like to say that they’re writing “the first draft of history,” and that’s a charitable way to describe the difference between information and knowledge. Of course books can be (and often are) just as pernicious as bad journalism. But because journalism is usually a monopoly source of information in any given community, books have a longer, wider, and deeper perspective, they derive from diverse viewpoints, and they’re as close to immortality as the written word can expect.

Freeman: Well, we will rely on people such as yourself to weed out those pernicious books. Let’s talk about those immortal books for a moment. If — in a gross miscarriage of justice, obviously — you were sentenced to a long term in a penal colony, which four books would you take with you?

Terzian: For the purposes of answering an impossible question, I’ll stick to imaginative literature: Piers Plowman, by William Langland; Seven Men, by Max Beerbohm; Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot; and Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Freeman: Now that I’ve lured you into list-making, I intend to press my advantage. But first, I have to ask: Why the Fitzgerald?

Terzian: I discovered Fitzgerald at the age of twelve — initially reading about him in our local library — and of course his life and work were just the thing to appeal to an adolescent romantic. The world he describes in those stories — the WASP, Ivy League upper middle class of the early to mid-20th century and its tribal rites — is a lifelong hobby of mine, and his prose is both limpid and jagged. Revisiting those stories never fails to revive the sensation of reading them for the first time. Also, I grew up in the same place where his daughter was then living, and not very far from his burial site.

Freeman: We can agree that there’s nothing wrong with a little adolescent romanticism in a penal colony. But let’s turn now to the Ultimate List. What’s on your bedside table these days?

Terzian: As you might have guessed, I have a small bookcase at the foot of my bed stocked with perennial favorites — Ben Jonson, Faulkner, Dr. Johnson, medieval miracle plays, the Alanbrooke diaries, Our Timesby Mark Sullivan. But new books currently on my nightstand are John Bew’s life of Clement Attlee; On Human Nature, by the newly knighted Roger Scruton; and Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music, by Jan Swafford. It really is for beginners, but I’m always interested in whose reputation is soaring or declining at the moment. And I’m partial to anyone who appreciates my favorite composer, Arnold Schoenberg.

Freeman: Actually, I wouldn’t have guessed. But I’m glad I asked. Let’s close with an intramural question. There was major buzz some years ago when the big New York houses, including Random House and Simon and Schuster, launched imprints to tap the “new and rapidly growing” audience of conservative readers. (Who knew that conservatives could read!) How have those imprints fared? And how are conservative books faring in the wider world of mainstream publishing?

Terzian: The imprints seem to be thriving, although I would never underestimate the capacity of the publishing industry to inflict economic harm on itself by deliberately ignoring readers or buyers it doesn’t want. This applies to bookselling as well as book publishing. My general impression is that the Reagan-era interest in explicitly “conservative” writing has run its course, as publishers are now giving full voice to left-wing revisionism about American history as well as subjects — transgender sexuality, black nationalism, rape culture, hate speech, etc. — currently in vogue on campus. Still, the rise of Donald Trump has been as much of a shock to the system as the election of Ronald Reagan. Perhaps it will prompt some curiosity and a new dose of diversity in book publishing.

Freeman: Thanks, Phil.

Neal B. FreemanMr. Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line. This article has been adapted from his new book, Walk with Me: An Invitation to Faith.


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