Digging In: An Introduction

Some drops from a Niagara

Editor’s Note: On Monday, National Review Books will publish Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. Below is the book’s preface. To order the book, go here. We are now selling it at a specially discounted price, pre-publication.

In my years as a writer and editor, I’ve titled thousands of pieces — and blogposts and a few books. I have a rule, at least in my head: No titles that are subject to multiple interpretations. I think titles ought to be straightforward and clear in their meaning. I don’t like those cleverish titles that “work” on several “levels.”

And here I’ve gone and titled a collection “Digging In.” My “rule” is not so much a rule as a guideline, or inclination, or preference.

“Digging In” can be understood at least three ways. You dig in to life, or to a book (maybe particularly a collection of diverse pieces). Think of attacking a feast. Also, “digging in” means getting below the surface of something. And it means increasing one’s resolve. You’re not weakening or retreating. On the contrary, you’re digging in.

There is a saying in politics: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Well, I am explaining, but I hope I’m not losing, too badly.

My previous collection was called “Here, There & Everywhere.” For this new one, I thought of “Here, There & Everywhere, Volume II.” But that takes up a lot of acreage on a cover, especially when you consider the subtitle (“Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger”). You don’t want to exhaust the reader before he begins.

The first collection had eight chapters; the present one has six. The first one had a chapter on politics, whereas this one does not. And yet politics infiltrates the book (not wrongly, I trust). The first collection had a whole chapter on golf. This one does not, but it has two pieces about golf: They bookend the chapter called “Issues and Essays.” The first one deals with President Obama and his golf habit; the second, the closing one, describes a visit to Augusta National.

That first collection, Here, There & Everywhere, had a chapter called “Personal.” It was about things pertaining to . . . well, me, the author. Digging In has no “Personal.” Yet it has plenty of personal. Let me amplify this by telling a couple of stories.

Several years ago, I was writing a history of the Nobel Peace Prize (Peace, They Say). A friend of mine — a fellow writer — said, “I hope there will be plenty of you in it. I mean, I hope that it will have your personal touches. I hope you will let something of yourself come through.” That was very nice, but I said, “No way. This is a work of history. I’m writing neutrally, objectively, and impersonally. But I’m afraid I will slip through, regardless.”

I then told my friend a story about another friend — Patrice Fowler, who was from the South, and an excellent southern cook. One day, she served a meal, and I said, “Pat, is this southern?” She thought for a second and said, “No. But by the time I get through with something, it’s southern.”

Occasionally, people say to me, “I like your writing style.” (They also say they dislike it.) I object to this, believe it or not. I deny that I have a style. I think a writer applies a style — or a sensibility, or an approach — to the subject at hand. Also, the venue may make a difference. (The magazine, newspaper, or website.) There can be no single style. A reporting piece will take one style, a concert review another style, a personal essay another style, and so on.

Consider the musician. The pianist, in particular. When he plays a Clementi sonata, that calls for one style, and when he plays a Scriabin, another.

So, I will explain this to people, and they’ll smile at me, indulgently — as though thinking, Jay is deluding himself. He has a style. I will let readers — other readers — judge for themselves. If you think that I have a style, across the board, please don’t tell me.

Here, There & Everywhere was published in 2007. All the pieces in Digging In were written after that time. In selecting them for inclusion in this second volume, I thought about what would make a good variety. A nice bouquet. As for the order, I have not gone chronologically. How have I gone? By feel, frankly. You could have ordered these pieces — and chaptered them, and, for that matter, selected them — in any number of ways.

The opening chapter is “People.” You never run out of people, as a journalist. They supply endless and rich material. Bill Buckley used to quote someone (whose name has been forgotten, at least by me): “Ninety-nine out of every hundred people are interesting, and so is the hundredth, for he is the exception.”

I’ll give you a taste of how these “people” pieces come about. In 2008, I read a news article about an officer in the Special Forces, who had been badly injured. Blinded, even. Yet he had insisted on remaining in the Special Forces — and they let him. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to ask him questions. And I did. And was very glad of it.

In 2013, I attended the funeral of a friend in Salzburg. A man, the head of the local Jewish community, spoke. Someone said to me, “You know, that man is 100 years old. And he survived four concentration camps. He says, ‘I could write a Michelin guide to the camps.’” I definitely wanted to meet him. And was glad I did.

Two years later, I read that Julie Kent was retiring. Like the rest of the world, I had always loved this ballerina. Wouldn’t it be nice to meet and question her? And wouldn’t her retirement make a good excuse, or “peg” (as they say in journalism)? It was a most pleasant hour or so, across a table. When I left the building, my feet barely touched the pavement (not that I’m as nimble, or floaty, as Julie Kent).

After “People” comes “America — Some Snapshots.” North Dakota was experiencing an oil boom, a fascinating story: an economic story, yes, and a political one. But mainly a human one. People who hadn’t worked in years — and had virtually given up on ever being able to support their family — were working there, in North Dakota.

So, that is one “snapshot” (or series of snapshots, actually). I also went to explosives camp. Explosives camp? Yup, in Rolla, Mo. A friend had told me about it. At this remarkable camp, youngsters learn how to blow things up — responsibly, of course. But still . . . When the campers were sitting at tables, making firework shells, I said to a counselor, “It looks like arts and crafts.” True, she answered: “arts and crafts with an edge.”

As there are snapshots from around America, there are snapshots from around the world, in “Abroad.” The opening piece of that chapter is about the Iraq War. Re-reading that piece, years later, I thought, “How that war has been mythologized, in the years since its ending. How quickly things get twisted, to suit different ‘narratives.’” Anyway, readers can ponder this for themselves, and reach their own conclusions.

Of course, that is true at every turn, right?

In the 1960s and ’70s, there was a TV program called “Issues and Answers.” I think that must have been in the back of my mind when I titled the next chapter “Issues and Essays.” In this one, you have subjects from A to Z. Most of the essays, I think, were prompted by current events — or at least by something I read or observed, which tickled my brain, and made my fingers itch (to write). I’ll give three examples.

A conference I was to attend — the Oslo Freedom Forum — was postponed at the last minute. Because of a hotel-workers strike. Some months before, Opening Night at Carnegie Hall had been canceled. Because the stagehands union had a grievance. (These guys are rich, by the way.) My fingers itched to write about labor unions, and my mental wrestling with them over the years. So I did.

In December 2013, a pro-Obama group put out an ad promoting ObamaCare. It pictured a young man in pajamas, who became known as “Pajama Boy.” People on the conservative side of the aisle said that he simply “looked liberal.” So, I wrote an essay on looking like your politics: looking liberal, or looking conservative. Can you judge a book by its cover? (Sometimes yes, sometimes no.)

A year and a half later, I was reading an article about higher education, in which the author made a blunt declaration: Anthropology was “the most pathetic college major” whose name “doesn’t end in the word ‘studies.’” So — an essay on anthropology and its decline since the glory days. A “lament” for a field.

The next chapter consists of essays too — but they are all on one subject, language. I figured they should have their own chapter. Linguistic issues come up constantly, at least in my mind. My fingers frequently itch to write about language.

In an editorial, the New York Times described the Supreme Court’s Democratic appointees as “moderate liberals”; the Republican appointees were “conservatives” (no modifier). This led to an essay by me about labels, political or otherwise. I noticed that Vice President Biden was referring to the president, in public, as “Barack.” So I wrote an essay about the (tricky) business of first names. Obama said that, henceforth, the mountain in Alaska would be known as “Denali,” not “McKinley.” From me: a meditation on “the rise and fall of names.”

Is that a linguistic issue, properly understood, or more like a name issue? How about the “Barack” essay? I am speaking of language broadly.

In the concluding chapter, “Music,” you will find essays. And profiles, of musicians. You could have put some music pieces in “Issues and Essays,” and some of them in “People.” In any event, music, like language, gets a chapter of its own.

The first two pieces are about two composers as different as it’s possible to be, American though they are: Lee Hoiby and Elliott Carter. Curiously enough, I mention Carter in the Hoiby piece, saying that Hoiby once forwarded me a spoof on Carter. Each man was highly interesting, in his distinctive ways.

Some of the music pieces, like other pieces in this volume, were sparked by events. At Obama’s second inauguration, Beyoncé sang the national anthem. Or rather, she lip-synched it. Which led to “Faking It and Making It.”

Preparing this volume, I of course re-read the pieces. One notices one’s tics. And there is repetition in this book, which I have done little or nothing to obviate. In two different pieces, I mention Milton Babbitt and the title of his famous, or infamous, essay: “Who Cares If You Listen?” (1958). But each mention belongs in the particular piece. I also tell a story about Harry Reid — twice, in two different pieces. Again, the story belongs where it is, each time.

When it comes around again, maybe you can pretend you haven’t heard it before?

Also, I say that I’m from Ann Arbor — over and over again. After the third or fourth time, you probably register that. And yet my pieces are littered with Ann Arbor, which I trust you won’t mind, or will forgive.

Then there is WFB — William F. Buckley Jr. I quote him over and over again. I have a bad case of Buckleyitis. I quoted him just a minute ago, didn’t I? More precisely, I quoted his quoting of somebody else. I do some of that in Digging In. I quote him quoting someone else. I quote him quoting the same quotation in two different pieces. And, I hate to tell you, those pieces aren’t placed very far apart either.

Friends and colleagues sometimes say, “Practically anything can remind Jay of something Bill said or did.” Which reminds me of the time he . . .

This is my defense, to the extent I need one: I spent chunks of my life reading him. Thoroughly. I spent a lot of time with him (personally). He just seeped in. Plus, he’s quotable, isn’t he? As there is something Biblical or Shakespearean for every occasion, there is something Buckleyan.

In this book, there are no photos. But I hope you’ll be able to picture people and places regardless. There are no audio recordings either. But I hope you’ll hear the voices! I heard them, as I re-read the pieces, and that was easy because I had heard them in the first place.

Take Lorin Maazel, the conductor. I asked him, “Why do people sneer at Puccini and Tchaikovsky” (to name two composers)? “Envy,” he said, dismissively. I think he even waved his hand a little. I wish you could have heard him: the mixture of pity and contempt for people who make themselves feel good by sneering at people whose talents they can barely fathom.

I wish you could have heard Gene Genovese, the historian—that sharp Brooklynese, directed with deadly aim at various targets. His voice, his speech, was one of the most impressive and delightful things about him.

And I must confess, I laughed out loud on reading my piece about Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian soprano: “Prima Donna Assoluta.” I could just see her and hear her! In addition to her singing, she is known for her diva antics and episodes. Let me quote from my piece:

There are books of opera anecdotes, and I suggest to this soprano that books in the future will have whole chapters devoted to her. Yes, she says, “and I’m not finished yet!” I ask her about one of my favorite stories: Did she really demand hair and makeup for a radio interview? No, she says: There was a photo-shoot the same day as the radio interview. Too bad, I say, it’s such a good story. Yes, she says, “but I have lots of others.”

As I remember, she brightened when she said “but I have lots of others.” I think she was trying to cheer me up. And she knew she was dishing up a good quote. She is smart as hell.

I’d better stop now, and let you get on with the book (let you “dig in”). Early in my career, I worried about where my next piece would come from. I soon stopped worrying. There are zillions more pieces than there is time to write them. The world gives a journalist a Niagara. There is horror, there is joy. There’s a lot in between.

I feel a paean to journalism coming on, but I said I’d stop . . .


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