Writers Who Change How You Read
In late 2008 I put myself through a crash course in the works of Willmoore Kendall, the “wild Yale don,” as Dwight Macdonald called him, who had been one of the founding senior editors of National Review. This was research for an essay that would appear in The Dilemmas of American Conservatism. I’d read some Kendall before—a desultory stroll through The Conservative Affirmation in America, at least—and hadn’t profited much from the experience. But the second, more attentive perusal was different. Kendall himself had told of how R.G. Collingwood had taught him at Cambridge to read a book by asking what question the author was trying to answer. I didn’t find that approach too insightful, but I picked up something else from Kendall’s own methods—the habit of asking “What conditions would have to be true in order for this author’s arguments to make sense?”
That’s a more productive thing to ask of a serious work than simply, “Do this author’s arguments make sense?” The latter invites the reader to supply a misleading context: the author’s arguments may not match up with reality, but they must match up at least with his own view of reality, and that’s something worth figuring out and contrasting against whatever the reader thinks he already knows.
Stated so plainly this isn’t likely to strike anyone else as particularly insightful, just as Kendall’s report of how Collingwood reshaped his thinking didn’t do much for me. But that’s a lesson, too: it’s the act of thinking along with a text or teacher, and the new context created by that act, which makes a dead question come alive.
I thought of this when I recently came across Peter Witonski’s 1970 NR review of The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, a book that began as a series of Kendall lectures and was finished after his death by George Carey. The review doesn’t do justice to the book—it elicited a sharp letter from Carey, who thought Witonski hadn’t even read what he purported to be reviewing—but Witonski does capture the effect Kendall can have, even decades after his death, perfectly:
What Kendall is all about is thinking—thinking about theoretical problems in politics. The device is that of the master professor, the man who by definition professes because he is wise, and is wise because he professes. The failure to convince, the difficult prose, are the essence of this device. In not convincing, Kendall makes you think the problem over again and again. I recognized this for the first time several years ago, when I met Kendall, for the first and last time, in a suburb of Paris, and spent many hours arguing with him.
The man, like the writer, was convincing and unconvincing. That night he spent a good deal of time propounding the general idea behind a book he had been engaged in writing, dealing with the American tradition. His argument was, of course, brilliant. But when I left him I was as unconvinced as ever. As I walked away from his flat I found myself thinking about what he had said. Suddenly I realized that I was thinking about such things as the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence with a new freshness and vigor. I was rethinking them. I still did not agree with Kendall, but in his own perverse way he had taught me a great deal in a short period of time about subjects in which I had long since considered myself to be expert. Kendall was a master teacher.
Kendall and Collingwood are by no means alone in this heuristic impact. But it’s a rare thing: there are many memorable books and teachers that impart facts or insights; there aren’t so many who change the way an interlocutor reads.