On Reading Other Columnists
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 22, 2008
I suspect that there are columnists who hesitate to read other columnists out of fear of what Harold Bloom terms the 'anxiety of influence.' I am not among them.
I am often struck by how many of my favorite columnists fairly leaped off the page at first sight. I can still remember the Toronto kitchen in which I first encountered Mark Steyn and fell to the floor in paroxysms of laugher. My initial encounter with Bret Stephens in the European edition of the Wall Street Journal is equally vivid. Each possesses a style so uniquely his own that it is identifiable in an instant.
On the other hand, there are columnists who are only fully appreciated by their cumulative impact. Week after week, Evelyn Gordon methodically, patiently builds her case with regard to a particular issue - often one that has escaped the attention of everyone else. When she is done, her conclusions are as inescapable as a theorem in geometry.
The first thing I look for in a columnist is someone with real expertise, not just a lot of opinions. A column by Bernard Lewis represents the tiniest tip of the iceberg of his magisterial command of Islamic history, and carries the authority of the greatest living scholar of Islam. At first glance, Victor Davis Hanson's knowledge of the Peloponnesian Wars would not seem to count for much in terms of analysis of current events. But his deep grounding in the classics enables him to cast fascinating new light on many contemporary conflicts.
True to my undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, my tastes run to those who show themselves capable of reflecting about something beyond today's headlines, and who have a broad familiarity with history and what were once quaintly referred to as the Great Books. George Will, for instance, frequently offers insights to which one finds oneself returning again and again. His distinction between values and virtues is a good example. The former are proclaimed; the latter are acquired. The former are cheap, anyone can proclaim hundreds of them; the latter must be earned, and are accordingly far rarer.
PREDICTABLE PARTISANS bore me. So do those who might as well be writing on the sports pages inasmuch as their interest in politics extends no further than the question of who is winning and who is losing. If the writer does not meet Connor Cruise O'Brien's definition of an intellectual - someone who can admit when another has made a point in a debate - he is a waste of time.
Partisanship is a drag, but a well-developed worldview is a plus. A Charles Krauthammer column on some aspect of American foreign policy is inevitably rooted in his systematic reflections on the various schools of thought with regard to America's role in the world.
It does not particularly matter whether that worldview is one's own. Indeed the most valuable columnist is often one with whom one disagrees, but whose arguments cannot be dismissed. The mental acuity developed in talmudic learning is in part a function of being constantly forced to defend one's interpretations against a study partner ever poised to knock them down. Other columnists can similarly serve as invaluable chavrutot (study partners).
Reading those who reinforce our views, particularly if they buttress those views with new information, can be satisfying. But we probably gain more from those whom we pick up only warily because we know that they will force us to refine and defend our own thinking. Leon Wieselthier is, in that sense, an ideal chavruta for me.
I CAN remember my mother commenting nearly 50 years ago, after Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, that his playing was technically brilliant but only an unhappy romance would turn him into a great pianist. In the same vein, I find little to interest me in young wunderkinds - those whom one suspects edited their high school newspaper, their college newspaper and then moved on to doing the same in some newsroom. I'm much more interested in those whose writing draws on a rich reservoir of experiences beyond just writing, and who possess a developed self, not just an ironic posture presented to the world.
The great British essayist Theodore Darymple spent years as a prison psychiatrist and traveled with the locals through Africa and much of the underdeveloped world. David Warren is one of the few mainstream columnists who writes often of his own religious beliefs and his dramatic midlife turn toward Christianity. His beliefs are obviously not my own, but shared 'conversion' experiences would no doubt give us much to talk about.
Which brings me to what attracts me most to any columnist: the feeling that here is someone whom I would want for a new friend; someone whose life experiences resonate with my own, yet are still sufficiently different that I would not feel like I was talking to the mirror. Paul Greenberg, the Yiddish-speaking columnist incongruously located in Little Rock, Arkansas, whose range of subjects and reminiscences seems virtually limitless, strikes me as just about the perfect shmoozing partner.
Reviewing Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village, Jean Bethke Elshtain recalls her own childhood in a real Colorado village (population 185). Her equivalent of Proust's madelaine is a plate of freshly baked cookies presented by her grandmother as the family, all bundled up, prepares to depart by sleigh.
Now a world famous professor, Elshtain wonders what comparable gift will she offer to her own grandchildren - the latest paper presented at an academic conference?
Who would not wish to meet the author of that query, or, failing that, read every word she has published?
This article appeared in Jerusalem Post Feb 22 2008
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