[Author's note: the title of this interview "Something to Do with Books" is a reference to Heinrich Boll. It is intentional—and a homage].
Roger Kimball is the co-editor and co-publisher of The New Criterion which is one of the most respected conservative publications. Along with his editorial efforts, he also is a regular contributor of essays to the journal, and pens its "Notes & Comments" section. The New Criterion occasionally runs multi-issue symposiums addressing special topics, and the current one juxtaposes utopia with nationhood. Mr. Kimball is the author of a great many books such as Tenured Radicals: How Politics, Has Corrupted our
Higher Education, Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse, Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, and The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America. His latest book is The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art.
Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Art and Culture, edited by Mr. Kimball and Hilton Kramer, is forthcoming this spring. Mr. Kimball is the publisher of Encounter Books, which he moved from San Francisco to New York last year. That move, and Mr. Kimball's appointment as publisher, occasioned this interview.
BC: Since the last time we spoke it seems that you have gotten into the book business. Allow me to ask, what exactly has brought about your acquisition of Encounter Books?
Kimball: There are some interesting bits of history and coincidence involved. You probably remember the monthly magazine Encounter, which was started just after World War II in London. Its first editors were Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol. It was one of a suite of liberal anti-Communist magazines started by something called the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the late 1940s: Quadrant in Australia was another, as were Preuve in France and Monat in Germany. Although Quadrant is the only one that still exists, Encounter was undoubtedly the most successful of the bunch. In the 1950s and early 1960s it was one of the most influential intellectual journals in the Anglosphere (as we now denominate that confederation of English-speaking countries).
As it happens, I almost became the editor of Encounter back in the early 1990s. The editor then was a chap called Melvin Lasky, who succeeded Irving Kristol and had been the editor for, well, forever, or so it seemed. I had just published my book Tenured Radicals, had been working at The New Criterion for a while, and was asked whether I'd be interested in moving to London to edit the magazine when Mel retired, an event that was described as nigh. I said yes, went to London to talk to Mel and Encounter's publisher, and discovered that the magazine was in parlous financial shape (something any author or printer waiting to be paid could have told me). An American foundation was interested in helping, but only if some English money could also be found. None could—the Europeans are a stingy lot when it comes to supporting culture and ideas: they want the state to do that for them, too. In short order, the magazine folded, but the foundation bought its assets, including its name.
Now step back to 1966: Ramparts magazine, then edited by a young left-wing firebrand called Peter Collier, published an article showing that the Congress for Cultural Freedom had in fact been partly supported by the CIA. This meant that Encounter and all the other magazines, too, had been supported the CIA, i.e., Uncle Sam, namely the U.S. government. Horrors! Much gnashing of teeth, front-page stories in The New York Times decrying this enormity, etc. The revelations almost sunk Encounter, but it soldiered on, a diminished thing. Well, when the American foundation I mentioned decided to start a publishing house and resuscitate the name Encounter, they tapped a much older and wiser Peter Collier to head the house! Peter's views had developed markedly—"matured" would probably be le mot juste--since his days at Ramparts, and I think he regarded his stewardship of Encounter Books as part of a more general effort to make up for some of his youthful political antics.
I of course have known about Encounter from the beginning--they published my books The Long March and The Rape of the Masters as well as a collection from The New Criterion called Lengthened Shadows: America and Its Institutions in the Twenty-first Century that I edited with my colleague Hilton Kramer. But it was a surprise to discover 1) that Peter was planning to retire (he is a youthful and vigorous 65) and 2) that he had suggested me as a possible successor. I moved Encounter from San Francisco to New York just a year ago. It has been a daunting but exciting 12 months getting Encounter established in New York. We started with an entirely new staff, a publisher (me!) who had never spent a day working in a publishing house, but we also had a great list and (after a few preliminary bumps) a terrific, hard-working, and creative staff. The last year has been a bit of a blur, frankly—there was not only Encounter but also The New Criterion¸ which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, to look after—but things are finally beginning to settle down.
BC: It's lucky that Encounter is not-for-profit because making money nowadays from non-celebrity or non-self-help books seems a precarious proposition. More glaringly, can bankruptcy be avoided when one deals in "serious books for serious readers" [Encounter's motto]?
Kimball: Well, I have to admit that the economics of publishing came as a shock to me. It is a very hard business. Encounter could not, short of a miracle, exist except as a not-for-profit enterprise, but then that describes many worthy cultural pursuits—the Metropolitan Opera, the Museum of Modern Art, most educational institutions, or, for that matter, The New Criterion. The publishing world, like the academic world and the world of the mainstream media is overwhelmingly left-wing (which is not by the way, quite the same thing as "liberal"—on the contrary, it is largely illiberal). Encounter's mandate, a large part of it, anyway, is to offer an oasis of independent thought in this desert of group-think and intellectual conformity. We aim to add alternative voices to the public debate about serious issues—to publish thoughtful, well-written books that are serious, but not academic, that engage the reader about important policy and cultural issues in ways that are underrepresented by the MSP—the mainstream publishing world.
BC: You've done a lot of work in the past with Ivan Dee. Are you planning on continuing to use that publisher even though you now have a house of your own?
Kimball: Oh, yes. Ivan is terrific. This spring he will be publishing Counterpoints: Twenty-five Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts. I am busy with a book for Encounter at the moment—a new book on the university, which I signed up for before I took over Encounter—but I certainly hope to maintain a relation with Ivan in the future. He runs a distinguished publishing house.
BC: Let me ask you about the book reviewing business. Thomas DiLorenzo had an excellent piece on the political correctness inherent to institutions which offer up little snippets of description to adorn jackets and to color the impressions of the general public; Publisher's Weekly is a perfect example. The only problem is that some of these entities appear to possess a leftist bias. Would you agree that this is the case? I had to laugh because Booklist's entry for your Lengthened Shadows: America and Its Institutions in the Twenty-First Century referred to your contribution by saying that it "spits more bile" than that of another.
Kimball: I think Mr. DiLorenzo is right. The world of publishing is not as hermetic as the world of academia, but it suffers from the same intellectual-political deformity: the deformity of rancid liberalism, which, as I said above, is essentially illiberal. It is politically correct because it believes itself to epitomize virtue and therefore must regard any deviation from its orthodoxies not as a difference of opinion but a kind of apostasy. This helps account for its humorlessness and unattractive moralism. It also helps account for its contradictory attitude toward diversity. In theory, of course, the soi-disant liberals in the publishing and academic worlds approve of diversity—indeed, the word is always on their lips—but in practice they are terrified of diversity in any but a cosmetic sense. Sure, racial or sexual quotas are fine for these folks, but when it comes to genuine diversity—intellectual diversity—you find that they operate a closed shop.
BC: Do you think people read far less today than in the past? If so, is there anything which can stop this downward spiral? Television and video games cannot help the soul, and there is little doubt they act as a neurotoxin.
Kimball: I sometimes think that television was invented by some enemy of the human species to lobotomize it. But when you look around at contemporary culture, you see a situation that was perhaps best described by Dickens at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." We in the West are richer, more affluent, have access to more culture than any people anywhere in the past. And yet . . . You are certainly right about reading habits and the toxic effect of TV, video games, etc. Fortunately, the popularity of such pastimes—and how they do pass the time!—do not tell the whole story. There are competing appetites and alternative satisfactions, as witness the concern behind your question or the presence in our culture of enterprises such as The New Criterion or Encounter Books (not that there aren't other salutary initiatives as well!).
BC: I think that readers will always be in the minority due to personality factors. Most people are extroverted and abhor the type of silence the act of reading necessitates. However, is there any other medium which so effectively conveys information as the printed word?
Kimball: I agree. The situation was summed up by T. S. Eliot when, in Four Quartets he warned about our being "distracted from distraction by distraction." "Teach us," he said in another poem, "to sit still." We live in a world where competition for our attention is unremitting. Our addiction to the ephemeral is encouraged on all sides. Reading--serious reading, anyway--is an antidote to that triumph of the trivial and embrace of what Mark Steyn has called "present-tense culture," a culture that lionizes the present moment and systematically blinds itself to the resources of the past—a culture, that is, which makes a virtue of shallowness, ignorance, and historical vacuousness.
BC: What do you think the relationship is between reading and being a writer? Would you agree that without active study one cannot write at a high level?
Kimball: Yes, reading is the best propaedeutic for anyone wishing to write—that and, of course, the habit, the discipline of writing. I have always admired Anthony Trollope in this regard. He said that it wasn't genius that underwrote his immense productivity but rather his habit of pulling his chair up to his desk and writing. He arose every day at 5:30, was at his desk by 6:00 a.m., and got off a good 2,500 words before he left for his real job at the Post Office. But nurturing that salutary discipline was another habit: the habit of careful reading. I myself think we are probably too promiscuous in our reading habits. It is good to be well informed on a broad range of topics, of course, but it is better to read 6 serious books carefully than 25 books breezily. In an important sense, the most important, the most fertile reading is re-reading: coming back to something a second, third, or sixth time. It is important to make some books a part of oneself: to internalize their arguments, their rhythms, their emotional and intellectual weather. That is one reason that I believe it is important to memorize poems and other literary passages: "rote learning" is much deprecated today, but actually there is a lot to be said for it. It stocks one's intellectual larder with nourishment that is thereafter instantly available.
BC: I've asked you this before, but what are you currently reading? Is there anything you can recommend?
Kimball: Let's see, I recently finished Mark Steyn's America Alone, which I believe should be mandatory reading for all US citizens—indeed, I am tempted to make a close acquaintance with it a condition for citizenship. Mark outlines the real threats of radical Islam, which are as much demographic as terrorist—or perhaps I should say that demographics has now become a form of terrorism, especially in Europe—better than anyone. The book is at once hilarious and depressing.
I'd say something like this about Hayek's The Road to Serfdom which I just re-read for the first time since college. It is a coruscatingly brilliant book. Published in 1944 to warn about the dangers of central planning, it is as relevant today as it was in wartime England—more relevant as government intrudes itself into more and more areas of life and relieves us of responsibility for ourselves even as it grabs more and more of our money and infantilizes the population.
I am also reading Hilaire Belloc's brief classic, The Servile State and the British historian Andrew Roberts's new book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, which was published a few months ago in London and will be out here in February. It is a great book.
BC: Shortly you'll be coming out with Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Art and Culture. Is there anything here with which readers of the journal might not be familiar? What inclusionary criteria did you use when selecting these essays?
Kimball: Except for my introduction, all of the essays were published in The New Criterion, though some of them appear in Counterpoints in expanded form. Choosing the pieces was difficult. My colleagues David Yezzi, James Panero, and Stefan Beck (our former Associate Editor) and I spent weeks pouring over past issues to make a selection that was wieldy, coherent, and representative. We had to leave out a lot of marvelous things, but what we've gathered is I think an amazing tribute to The New Criterion.
BC: A couple of years ago a friend of mine purchased every issue of The New Criterion ever published for $800. My question to you is, how much better educated would the person who bought the boxed set be than the one who spent 100 grand on a liberal arts degree from one of our postmodern institutions?
Kimball: Assuming, of course, that he not only bought the run, but read carefully through it? Well, . . . . You tell me! Who do you suppose got the better deal? Unfortunately, we do not (yet) give out diplomas for proven mastery of The New Criterion (and, may I add, the Encounter) corpus, but that is perhaps not a bad idea!
BC: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Kimball.
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