Book Review: William F. Buckley (Christian Encounters Series)

This is the second book that I have read in the Christian Encounters series from Thomas Nelson, and I must admit that the idea behind the series is a good one: short biographies of well-known people, with an emphasis on their Christian faith. The first book in this series that I read was Peter Leithart’s biography of Jane Austen.

I chose to read Jeremy Lott’s treatment of William F. Buckley because I wanted to know more about Buckley. All I knew was that he was a conservative, a writer, and the founder and editor of National Review. The book certainly did introduce me to Buckley: I learned about his wealthy Catholic upbringing, his time at Yale, his initial writing success, the founding of National Review, his unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York and how his TV show Firing Line got its start, among other things.

Though the book did teach me about Buckley, I was put off by Lott’s writing. He alternately gushes about Buckley and criticizes those whom he (Lott) dislikes. He calls the announcement of Buckley’s campaign for mayor of New York “legendary” (70). Legendary to whom, exactly? He says that Buckley’s responses to journalists during the announcement of his candidacy “only fueled their cynicism” (74) – without citing any evidence for this opinion. He never wastes an opportunity to slight Garry Wills, whom he says “ended up endorsing just about any old liberal position you could think of” (47) – again, without citing any evidence.

Now, I expect biographers to have a certain affection for their subjects. And I suppose Lott has lots of reasons for criticizing the people he criticizes. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Lott never wastes an opportunity to inject his opinions into Buckley’s story. He never gives his readers the chance to make their own judgments, and I ended up wanting more Buckley and less Lott. I’d read more Buckley in a heartbeat, but I’ll have to think twice before I read anything else by Lott.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: William F. Buckley (Christian Encounters Series)

  1. Jeremy Lott August 16, 2010 / 8:29 pm

    To each his own, as they say, but I’d like to reply to a few of these criticisms.

    One, rather than quote somebody saying “this is legendary,” I made the assertion and then showed readers why that might be so, by giving them a blow-by-blow of the press conference.

    Two, re: cynicism, I quoted the, yes, cynical questions of several journalists in said press conference. (NB: One source of confusion here could be that I do not regard “cynicism” as an insult, and a lot of people do. I was describing, not denouncing.)

    Three, I did give some examples of Garry Wills endorsing liberal positions. See chapter 8: “Race, Sex, Rome, and Ayn Rand.”

    I suppose these criticisms do not knock out Elliot’s larger one. There may indeed be too much Lott in the book and not enough Buckley. But I pause to note that he admits I accomplished what I set out to do when he writes, “I’d read more Buckley in a hear[t]beat.” Good. Whether he’d read more of me now is beside the point.

  2. elliot August 16, 2010 / 10:18 pm

    Thank you very much, Mr. Lott, for taking the time to reply (and thanks also for finding that typo in “heartbeat”). Regarding your responses:

    1. I suppose I’ll chalk this up to a difference of opinion between the two of us as to what kinds of events constitute legendary status. It seemed like an exaggeration to me, but it may not to everyone.

    2. The reporters’ questions were indeed cynical, but it was more the “fueling” that I objected to than the “cynicism.” I couldn’t see from the way the press conference was presented how the reporters were getting more intensely cynical than they were before Buckley started answering questions.

    3. You are right, you did point out a few of Wills’s liberal opinions in chapter 8. What took me aback the most on page 47 was the hyperbole: “any old liberal position you could think of.”

    What my criticisms boil down to is that I found your writing style occasionally grating. I hope that doesn’t sound like a personal insult. I don’t mean it as one. But as you said, to each his own, and I know not everyone would agree with me. And as you pointed out, you still accomplished your objective.

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