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 membership.)
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 Josef Stalin.
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 agenda.
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 countless others.
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 eternal.