Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Back when even stupid readers could write

If there were ever a book I'd buy just because of the title, Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription is surely one of them. Fortunately, I don't have to; my wife also appreciates the sentiment it implies and gave me the book for Christmas.

A collection of the most outrageous letters received at The National Review since 1968, paired with the trenchant responses of editor William F. Buckley Jr., this may be a book only newspaper people can really appreciate. Who among us has not fielded a damning letter or phone call and choked out some simpering semblance of civility when sterner measures were in order?

Buckley skewered the great and small with equal aplomb, and with such subtle elegance that those of us who today would be wordsmiths can only shake our heads. Was there really a time when the phrases "Get a life" or "Get over it" or "Fuck you" were not considered adequate ripostes? Evidently so. Think what you will of Buckley's politics; the man knew how to write. If you ever find yourself, as I have, earning a living by editing letters to the editor, this is required reading. If you just dig the simple joy of seeing the pompous pummeled in print, it's still worth a look.

I have to wonder how much more interesting newspapers would be if every letter to the editor were accompanied by some snide but erudite editorial rejoinder. That's a place I'd love to work, and a job I'd love to have. But probably not in this life. The corporate rulers of today's newspapers have long since decided that attitude is only acceptable in sports coverage, and only then if the commentator has some cross-marketing potential on ESPN. Today, newspapers are more about grubbing for page views by giving away content on the Internet, and then generating thousands more useless hits by offering semi-literate readers the option of posting anonymous comments.

Anonymity is the great curse of the Internet. Reading the letters in Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, I'm struck by how coherent even the worst of them were. But you can see why. Those were the days when you signed your name to what you wrote, and even if you were the biggest idiot in the civilized world, it behooved you to pretend otherwise. There is no such civilizing influence now.

Yeah, I know: I'm going all Andy Rooney now: Kids today. The old ways were better. They don't build 'em like they used to. But at least I'm not selling Sleep Number beds. The defense rests.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Hoo, boy, does this ever deserve a comment -- a longer one than I can offer now, since I have to rush off to my "job" at a "newspaper." Buckley is an insufferable snob, but, yes, when he drops the act and decides to write, he does a fine job of it.

A newspaper such as the one you dream of could never exist. Today's newspapers, and not just the ones run by big corporations, mouth pieties about serving the reader, so no chance anyone would risk insulting this mythical creature.
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