WASHINGTON — The other day I received a call from a very agreeable lady at C-SPAN, asking me to do a show with them called “In Depth.” It will take a lot of time, as they want to interview me on all the books I have written. Also, it will last three hours! That is a marathon. I can hardly listen for three hours, much less talk. Yet I have been a fan of C-SPAN for years so I could hardly say no. Also I am an advocate of the printed word. I want it to survive. It seems to me the printed word has been under assault for decades. The Internet is the latest threat against it. First there was the camera. Then came TV. Now there is the Internet on which everyone writes and no one reads. In a world where everyone is a writer and no one a reader how long can the printed word last? We live in a blizzard of words, but no one is reading seriously.
The first question I have been asked before appearing on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” on February 6 was what my favorite books might be. They have changed over the years, but I think today there are at least a score of dozen books that I return to every few years. Let me share them with you.
About anything by Evelyn Waugh pleases me, though he was a ghastly man. For that matter, a lot of writers strike me as insufferable, but I run the risk of committing the genetic fallacy here so let me just say I like his books. I am glad he never signed any for me. Also anything written by V.S. Naipaul fetches my interest, beginning with A Bend in the River. For me, Naipaul gives us an inkling of the international terrorist that was to come.
Mencken and Nathan have always charmed me, Nathan being underpraised, Mencken overpraised. I reread regularly Malcolm Muggeridge, whom I knew, and Luigi Barzini, also a great friend–both were stupendous journalists and stylists. Tom Wolfe’s short pieces, for instance, “Radical Chic” and “Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers,” are perceptive and elegant glimpses into lives that have affected our era. They are alive with wicked wit and joviality. Tom is also a very good novelist, as can be seen from The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. Of all the writers writing today, Wolfe has influenced me the most.
As for the past, I am a 1920s gent, socially and literarily. The 1920s was abundant with good writing, journalistically and literarily. I have already mentioned Mencken and Nathan. As for the more timeless work, I read Hemingway, particularly A Farwell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I would not spend fifteen minutes with him, if he were alive today, but he could write. His short stories are also very fine. So could Fitzgerald, and I reread The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night from time to time. Faulkner is sublime: The Bear, As I Lay Dying, Intruder in the Dust, Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury are all masterworks. Also Sinclair Lewis was an amazingly good novelist if a deficient thinker. I read him from time to time.
Among the Europeans I favor The Brothers Karamazov and anything by Conrad. I especially like Under Western Eyes. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal is superb, especially the opening scene on horseback at Waterloo. I have read Shakespeare with relish, especially the comedies and the histories, and I reread Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales every decade at least and Cervantes’ Don Quixote too. It would be very lax of me not to include the poetry of W.B. Yeats, though I shall leave his stuff about spiritualism and the monkey glands out of consideration. Mencken thought poetry was mostly nonsense, but he was up to his old tricks. Yeats is always worth reading and let me heave in T.S. Eliot.
I read Gibbon, Macaulay, and Churchill, and an especially illuminating book about Churchill and the post-war period is In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds. Martin Gilbert’s biography of the great man is marvelous–I dipped into it frequently during The American Spectator‘s jolly war with the Clintons. Martin has actually improved over the years. Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, The Birth of the Modern, and A History of the American People are splendid efforts at revisionist history, but if one wants the conventional reading I urge Arthur Schlesinger on almost anything. He is a conventional Liberal, but an elegant writer.
For social science I have found Edward Banfield, particularly The Unheavenly City, extremely useful. His analysis is a bracing antidote to our statist friends. Milton Friedman is the final word on the subject. A collection of his journalism would be useful, but a handy guide to his thought is Capitalism and Freedom. Let me finish with a philosophical work, the works of Aristotle, particularly the Politics.
The lady from C-SPAN also wanted to know what I am reading now. That would be Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. It is a great book about a great man. And before I go let me recommend Solar by Ian McEwan. It is a send-up of the environmental movement almost as effective as this frigid winter.