There are still persons who will open a book and read instead of watching whatever’s on television or fiddling with an iPhone when they have leisure and whether or not the time is planned. (When they are truly devoted readers, it will be.) I know these persons exist because I am one.
Some of us remaining readers rejoiced a few years ago when The Library of America published in two volumes all of H.L Mencken’s Prejudices. It wasn’t as if anybody would undertake to read the volumes from cover to cover, but it was, and still is, wonderful knowing they are at hand so that when disposed to it one may open a volume and engage with one of the most interesting minds the country has ever produced and also have the pleasure of reading prose whose vitality and fiber were matched by few other Americans writing in the twentieth century.
It’s something like that to own now Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years, the major difference between the Sobran book and the two Mencken volumes being that at 165 pages the Sobran can be read easily from cover to cover. I have done that, but also look forward to returning to the book on occasion to read this or that piece, perhaps especially if I have a good brandy at my elbow so I can savor both. Sobran, I think, would approve of such reading.
No, I don’t think that, I know it. Sobran didn’t choose the photograph of himself that graces the cover of the book, but when it was taken — back when he was still at National Review, I’d guess — he must have elected to have a cigar showing, and it’s quite usual for men who enjoy cigars to like brandy also. On his face is a smile I can only think to describe as puckish — except for the eyes. If they seem to be taking the measure of somebody we don’t see, there’s also something defiant in their expression.
The photo puts me in mind of our last long one-on-one conversation. Sobran and I were not close friends but enjoyed each other’s company when we did meet, and some years ago — I suspect he was already feeling his health begin to fail but wasn’t letting on — he was the star speaker at an annual Saint Benedict Center conference. When the conference was over he and I sat together at a picnic table outside and talked, he with his cigar, I with my cigarettes, both of us with our respective libations. The same smile showed as in the cover photo, at least at times, and there was still defiance in the eyes, but its character had changed. In the photo, the eyes seem to say, “Try to stop me!” That evening at Saint Benedict Center, they said, “I’m not finished yet!”
He wasn’t. Despite all that had happened, despite learning in the hard way every man fears of who is a friend and who is not and, worse, that too many who hadn’t exactly turned their backs were also no better than Nicodemus at night when it came to practical help, he was still standing, still thinking, still writing.
What had happened? We all know. There’s no point in rehashing it here.
It was not accidental that I began these lines by writing of Mencken. All of the pieces in Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years were written when many turned to Sobran first when they opened an issue of NR because for a long time they saw in him the promise of a new Mencken. I’ll go further. It was possible in those days to think of Sobran becoming that extreme rarity among conservatives in this era (it is so rare that only NR’s founder, Bill Buckley, really managed it): a public intellectual.
That didn’t happen. It remains that Joe Sobran was as gifted a thinker and writer as any on the political and social right in the United States during the past seventy years and the selections in Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years show it.
If there is a particular piece in the volume that I’d recommend, it would be “The Republic of Baseball,” dating from June, 1990. This recommendation comes from someone who knows nothing about baseball, and has cared less until now.
There not being many bookstores anymore, readers will want to know the Sobran book can be ordered online from the publisher, FGF Books, at $26.95 postpaid. There is also an e-book edition for $9.50. For phone orders (toll free): 877-726-0058.