The Books We Read
1998 is turning out to be quite a year for anniversaries.
150 years ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels first published the
Communist Manifesto. In that same year, 1848, the freedom fight
of Hungary against Austria was crushed by Russian armies. (Remarkably,
this anniversary year brought acceptance of Hungary by the West
- first sought by King St. Stephen in the year 1001 - through NATO
There seem to be no centenaries, but an abundance of 50-year commemorations.
Most notable among these are the State of Israel, and the Berlin
blockade that amounted to a Soviet declaration of war, turned "cold"
by the decision of the United States and Britain to supply a vast
metropolis from the air instead of issuing a nuclear ultimatum to
The one I would like to ponder at some length was modest by comparison,
but very much an American story. It was in 1948 that one Henry Regnery
of Chicago decided to publish books. He was working in his father's
business when it struck him that the books published by the major
houses were beginning to show an alarming uniformity of political
outlook, or - looking at it from the other side - that certain ideas
which used to be the bread and butter of American political thought
were missing. Exposures of international communism were nowhere
to be seen.
Today we would call the ideas for which he had looked in vain among
new releases "conservative." Perhaps we do because The
Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk - along with William F. Buckley's
God and Man at Yale - was a defining event in the annals
of Regnery Publishing. I said "today we would call..."
because, in reality, there is nothing conservative about Russell
Kirk's thought, just as there is nothing liberal about socialism,
which would be the proper designation of today's so-called liberal
The ideas we now call "conservative" are simply American.
In 1948, they had not yet been drowned out by the hysterical din
of the 1960s, they were merely consigned to silence. "Silence,"
wrote Henry Regnery, " is the temptation of the educated man
who finds himself in a minority. The conformity expressed by silence
is a betrayal of our own soul, our own mind. The time to speak out
is when we see truths that others do not see."
Henry Regnery spoke out. Not by asserting a "right to self-expression,"
but through books that saw the light of day solely as a result of
his effort. He built a successful business and demonstrated, once
more, that personal initiative in a free enterprise society can
move mountains. A typical American story, I hear you say, not unlike
There is a difference.
His might have been a campaign solely to fill the gap, selling
to a market hungry for certain information, for a different political
view. Or he could have combined a business proposition with a crusade.
Instead, he built a house to demonstrate anew that freedom comes
with certain obligations, and that among these are honesty, integrity,
and a commitment to free choice. Along with the new vintage, he
began to publish the great books of the ages. Along with the "conservative,"
he printed every shade of political view. Thus, under "L"
we find Vladimir Ilyich Lenin alongside John Locke; under "M"
Niccolo Machiavelli, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill share the shelf
with Edwin Meese III.
The room which houses the mind-boggling collection published by
the small and intensely personal Regnery Publishing, Inc. is now
in the home of Alfred S. Regnery, the son who carries on the operation
in Washington, D.C. But if anyone were to assume that such an accomplishment,
such exemplary contribution earned a place of unassailable respect,
the reality is disappointing, to say the least. Since Regnery continues
to publish those who argue for America's basic principles - or those
who disclose facts suppressed everywhere else - the company, its
proprietor, and anyone associated with the former, are hounded as
aberrations from the White House to CNN.
But those realities were not on the minds at the gathering of distinguished
Americans who sat down to dinner to commemorate 50 years of books
all of us ought to read. Indeed, a first-rate education (and then
some) may be obtained without ever setting foot outside that library
in Al Regnery's home. As many of the authors as could be assembled
were present to celebrate. Looking around the dining room, a fleeting
sense of well-being was unmistakable. Fleeting because, as all good
things, that beautifully planned and executed pilgrimage into the
past came to an end. We returned to the present.
The present is that, recently, two members of the San Francisco
Unified School District Board sought to prescribe a whole new quota
system predicated on intellectual terrorism. They wanted 7 out of
10 books that comprise compulsory reading at the high school level
to be by authors of designated pigmentations of skin, specific genital
configuration, and unusual sexual behavior. In the end, the Board
voted for a slightly watered-down form of what is called "diversity"
in the socialist jargon, and what really amounts to the elimination
of aesthetic value and literary worth as the criteria by which we
select the relatively few books our life span permits. But the fact
that members of a school district would propose such a thing in
what Americans regard as a major cultural center tells the story.
And yet, from an in-flight sales catalogue, an ad by "Intelliquest"
stared at me, offering a collection of "The World's 100 Greatest
Books." While Henry Regnery may not have approved all their
selections, the list demonstrated once again that commissars may
come and go - greatness washes over them like the waves of ocean