Up From Liberalism by William F. Buckley (1961, Rowman & Littlefield)
One common thread about a Buckley book is that it’s going to be enjoyable. He was remarkably skillful at writing contextually yet retaining precision, two goals which are often at odds with each other. The result were books which did not talk down to readers while simultaneously being understandable to those without Buckley’s extensive lexicon.
So, yes, it’s enjoyable. The question is: is it worth your time? Is the book still relevant in today’s society? Is it, alternately, an interesting historical piece?
From that perspective, the answer is yes – but a qualified yes. The book’s preface isn’t merely valid; it should be required reading for anyone, Democrat or Republican, who wants to take a hard look at how political movements grow and where they can go astray. At a length of about two pages, though, it can be read while standing in a library and is certainly not worth a purchase.
The opening, which details the failings of liberalism, is marginally useful. It’s not that he’s necessarily inaccurate, but there are failings. Foremost is that the complaints he registers are now more than a half century old – what was topical and relevant at the time are now reduced to historical whining. Secondary is that, while the specific topics are no longer prominent in the public discourse the general tactics and attitudes remain dominant throughout the Democrat party and non-Democrat left. This would normally be a solid argument for the book’s historical value, but the fact must be acknowledged that the tactics and attitudes are equally attributable to the contemporary American “right”.
This truism is hammered home in the final chapters of the book, where Buckley attempts to rally his readership around central principles which, in his view, define conservatism. At the time of writing, “conservative” was a label so loosely defined as to be virtually worthless; the proverbial big tent had no discernible walls. His efforts were key in refining the term, with results like those seen in the 1980s.
That brings us back around to the beginning of the book, though, where he expounds upon the intellectual vice of the liberals: holding fast to an ideological slant in defiance of reason or consistency. This book may hit painfully close to home for readers, who can see not just the beginnings of the modern conservative movement but that one reason it developed was to fight against what it has since become.
It by Stephen King (1986, Viking)
This is the book that proved Stephen King needed an editor. The book received considerable praise from many corners, and continues to be immensely popular today. I credit that praise to the appreciation contemporary reviewers had for King’s popularity (savaging America’s best-selling author was not a good career move) and the portrayals of Pennywise in film.
As a novel, though, the book is overwritten. King shows off his deft touch with conversational style by keeping the immense book from dragging too much in the unnecessary sections, but there are far too many of those patches throughout the narrative to ignore. He inserts a number of effectively disturbing scenes, but many of them fail on a rational level. How does one, even if they’re a semi-magical reality-altering spider demon, fit an eye into a fortune cookie? Seems a bit rough, there, just on the spacial physics of things…
The common complaints about the villain aside – I’ve no quarrel with cosmic entities or giant spiders as monsters, or I’d never make it through Lovecraft – there has also been considerable distress logged about a sex scene toward the end of the book. There is a good reason for this; King sets the entire book up as a showcase for a bunch of kids who are considered rejects in their Maine town, and the growth arcs of their stories are the true drivers of the novel. From this perspective, the orgy at the end can be interpreted as a coming of age moment, which is undoubtedly the way King intended it and what he has repeatedly claimed; or as a cheap misogynistic attack. Unfortunately, his critics have a point, because the girl’s story has been one of the less successful efforts throughout the book and thus the complaints that she exists primarily for sexual fodder hold some water.
That issue is lost amidst the broader problem, however, which is again that the book is overwritten. The basic story would have been just as interesting, the orgy just as offensive, the scares just as effective if about four hundred pages were trimmed from the final manuscript.
The average reader, someone who regularly picks up a book, manages to get through between two to three books per year. The size of It means that the average reader would have to commit somewhere more than a year of their life to the story. They would be much better served just to watch the movies or miniseries.