Magazine | December 19, 2016, Issue

Drops from a Niagara

Editor’s Note: National Review Books is now publishing Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. To order the book, go to store.nationalreview.com. What follows is a version of the book’s preface.

In my years as a writer and editor, I’ve titled thousands of pieces — and blog posts 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 piece deals with President Obama and his golf habit; the second one — 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.”

Here, There & Everywhere was published in 2007. All the pieces in Digging In were written after that time. The first chapter is “People” — and you never run out of them, as a journalist. People 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 an example of how these “people” pieces come about. 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 practically every concentration camp you can name. You should talk to him.” I agreed.

After “People” is a chapter called “America — Some Snapshots.” Consider North Dakota. It was experiencing an oil boom, and it was a fascinating story: an economic story, yes, and a political one — but mainly a human one. A thousand human stories came out of that patch.

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, almost a decade 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 will give just one example.

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.)

My 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. Again, one example:

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.

The concluding chapter is “Music,” and it has essays, profiles, etc. Some of these pieces, like others in this volume, were sparked by events. Take Obama’s second inauguration (please). Beyoncé lip-synched the national anthem — which led to “Faking It and Making It.”

Preparing this collection, I of course re-read the pieces. One notices one’s tics, which is annoying. And there is repetition in this book, which I have done little or nothing to obviate. I tell a story about Harry Reid, twice, in two different pieces. When it comes around the second time, maybe you can pretend you haven’t heard it?

Then there is WFB, William F. Buckley Jr., whom I quote over and over again. Obviously, 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 more of the same in Digging In.

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.

I must confess, I laughed out loud on revisiting my piece about Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian soprano: “Prima Donna Assoluta.” Aside from her singing, she is known for her diva antics and episodes. Let me quote from that 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 (“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.

It can be satisfying, journalism, to write and to read.

In This Issue

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Books, Arts & Manners

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