William F. Buckley

The sickbed serves to distract attention, but it is unsafe to assume as a corollary that such distraction is enjoyable or even productive. It may have lessened, for a few days, preoccupation with street warfare in Baghdad, but beware the seductions of innocent diversion. But hang on, because there is a happy ending here, only a few paragraphs away.

Many years ago, just graduated from college, just married, I purchased a shelf-load of newly printed "classics" -- to be read sometime, somewhere, or left to grandchildren to read. Such books rest, of course, in the uppermost reach of one's library, but I tipped one out en route to the hospital last month and found myself reading "The American" by Henry James.

It is 488 pages long, and it may be the single most boring book ever published. It is at least the single most venerated bad book ever published. The Internet will give you not only reviews of the book, but also the entire novel, chapter after chapter, word for word.

Now Henry James (1843-1916), novelist, essayist, critic, is captivating when describing people and situations. I wrote about his travel books, a dozen years ago, that "you can close your eyes and open either volume at any page and find yourself reading prose so resplendent it will sweep you off your feet. Yet after a while, after a long while, you will recognize that you do, really, have to come down to earth because there are so many other things to do. And besides, if you stay with him for too long, in that engrossing, scented, colored, brilliant, absorbing world, you feel strung out, feel something like hanging moss."

On the matter of writing, and how to get it done, Richard Powers in The New York Times Book Review last week wrote an exalted essay in praise of dictation, made economically feasible in the modern world by speech-recognition devices. "I write these words from bed," Powers tells us, "under the covers with my knees up, my head propped and my three-pound tablet PC -- just a shade heavier than a hardcover -- resting in my lap, almost forgettable. I speak untethered, without a headset, into the slate's microphone array. The words appear as fast as I can speak."

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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