I am not going to go over my lifelong appreciation for William F. Buckley despite the fact that I seem to open every Buckley book review with just such an appreciation. If you want to know how I feel read this. Or simply put his name in the search box to the right.
With Buckley’s recent passing I was motivated to finish one of his last published works, Cancel Your Own Goddamn Subscription, a collection of his Notes and Asides column. It turned out to be an insightful glimpse into Buckley’s style, perspective, and sense of humor.
Here is the publishers blurb:
Four decades of William F. Buckley Jr.’s famous (and infamous) wit in a volume that will be the political gift book of the season.
Who knew that William F. Buckley Jr., the quintessential conservative, invented the blog decades before the World Wide Web came into existence? National Review, like nearly all magazines, has always published letters from readers. In 1967 the magazine decided that certain letters merited different treatment, and Buckley, the editor, began a column called “Notes & Asides,” in which he personally answered the most notable and outrageous letters.
The selections in this book, culled from four decades of these columns, include exchanges with such figures as Ronald Reagan, Eric Sevareid, Richard Nixon, A. M. Rosenthal, Auberon Waugh, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. There are also hilarious exchanges with ordinary readers, as well as letters from Buckley to various organizations and government agencies
I am not sue what it says about blogs that the publisher is trying to use them as a selling point here. Nor am I sure that this is even close to an accurate claim. Since when do blogs follow the form of letters no matter their formality or lack thereof? I suppose you could argue that Buckley used this section in the magazine as a reporter might use a blog today: to post interesting things that might not otherwise get printed. Still, bit of stretch.
But what makes this book interesting is the way WFB’s personality and interests come through. Politics of course, but also language, humor, popular culture, and his many famous and interesting friends. You can learn a lot about a famous person, or at least about how he is perceived and perceives himself, by the letters he gets and how he chooses to respond.
Buckley was tireless in defending his, and his magazine’s, reputation. He never shrank from a fight that would further conservative ends even if that mean legal and financial risk. But he was a happy warrior and valued friendship above everything except his faith and his principles. He had a sharp wit and a instinct for the short but brutal reply.
Andrew Ferguson notes some of these reoccurring themes in his WSJ review:
“You ridiculous ass,” begins one early letter. Another opens: “You are the mouthpiece of that evil rabble that depends on fraud, perjury.” And another: “You are a hateful, un-Christian demagogue.” “You are the second worst-dressed s.o.b. on television.” Mr. Buckley’s responses are equally pithy, though slightly higher toned and always more allusive. To one disgruntled reader who identifies himself, in his righteous indignation, as the Second Coming of Jesus, Mr. Buckley warns: “And I am the second coming of Pontius Pilate.” He sometimes composes his insults in Latin–a bit of one-upmanship that even Eustace Tilley would envy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes to complain about some perceived slight: “I might have hoped that you would have had the elementary fairness, or guts, to provide equal time; but, alas, wrong again.” “Dear Arthur,” Mr. Buckley replies. “I should have thought you would be used to being wrong.”
Not all the exchanges are purely contentious. The literary scholar Hugh Kenner writes in to critique a single sentence–a long, zig-zaggy construction that Mr. Buckley wrote to open an essay in Esquire magazine. Abashed, Mr. Buckley protests that the sentence was “springy and tight.”
” ‘Springy and tight’ my foot,” says Kenner. “Those aren’t springs, they’re bits of Scotch tape.” What follows is several pages of literary dissection, with Kenner attacking vigorously and Mr. Buckley defending his published sentence with slackening strength. If it sounds fussy, it isn’t. It’s a miniature tutorial in rhetoric and style from one of the century’s most rigorous critics directed at one of its most accomplished journalists. You can’t imagine finding it in any other letters column.
Not surprisingly, I came away from it feeling even more found of Buckley and a strong dose of nostalgia for the National Review that was directly under his hand.
Obviously this is a must have for Buckley fans, but anyone with an interest in the unique journalistic practice of Letters to the Editor will find things of interest here. And anyone who enjoys witty repartee or the art of correspondence will chuckle at Buckley and his unique style and sense of humor.
Notes and Asides may not have been the precursor to the blog, but it certainly was a unique contribution to a classic journalistic forum. And like a great deal, it seems to have ended with him. The world is the poorer for it, but it is nice to know that this book has captured a glimpse for posterity.