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Books: English as 2nd language

Books | Buckley's "autobiography" falls seriously short

Issue: "Missionary hostages," Feb. 20, 1998

William F. Buckley's Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith sounds like a wonderful book, and I hope to

read it someday. But the volume on bookstore shelves today, bearing this title, is an imposter. Mr. Buckley may have written it, and it may touch on the subject of faith, but it's not an autobiography at all. And I feel no nearer to Mr. Buckley for having slogged through it. Although the book has its own merits, it's deeply disappointing for the promises it does not keep.

Mr. Buckley's love of the English language and life shine through in almost everything he writes. His sailing books (Atlantic High, Airborne) prompted me to buy a sailboat. But he also has the capacity to be awfully dry.

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There is a little of his personal history in the book, but precious little. Out of the book's more than 300 pages, only 39 are autobiographical. Those are the highlight of the book.

His first language wasn't English, it seems. His father graduated from the University of Texas law school, then went to practice in Mexico City. William F. Buckley Sr. and his growing family were booted out of Mexico in 1921, after he supported a revolution against the anti-Catholic government. During the next few years he moved his family to Switzerland, France, and England, as he tended his growing business interests.

Mr. Buckley and his siblings (there were 10 of them) were taught mostly by tutors, though they did spend some time at boarding schools in England. He recalls being taken to his first school by his parents:"It was late on a cold English afternoon (Father instructed the driver to detour to the landing field and we saw Neville Chamberlain descend the airplane that had flown him from Munich to announce he was bringing 'peace in our time'). An hour later we turned into the long driveway that took us to the pillared entrance to the school."

But that's (very nearly) where the life story ends. "Time, then, to open heavy theological doors," Mr. Buckley writes on page 40. "Where to start?"

He starts with a chapter called "On the Evolution of Christian Doctrine." He outlines in great detail a literary debate between a theologian (Ronald Knox) and a nonbeliever (Arnold Lunn). He discusses Vatican II, Our Lady of Lourdes, and current Catholic controversies.

And he remains unrepentant about his haphazard approach. "Since this volume is by specification 'personal,' I have the advantage that what I include need meet no higher entrance qualification than that it engaged my attention."

It's not unlikely that Mr. Buckley will someday write a real autobiography. And

it's certain that time will distill his mountain of words into a somewhat smaller gold mine of thoughts and observations. But until these things come to pass, he shouldn't tease us.

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