Witness to Life

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Reprinted from Policy Review.

As many a frustrated author would agree, betting money on the book industry these days is about as sound as putting it into Pokemon cards. Stores are disappearing left and right. Sales are down. Advances are down. Spirits are way, way down. Nor does all the happy talk about e-books and self-publishing change the fact that few readers seem to have the attention span for texts running longer than, say, this paragraph. To paraphrase a certain German philosopher ruminating on a different momentous event: What are Kindles and Nooks and iPads, if not the tombs of what was once the book?

Yet remarkably enough, this same literary downsizing has coincided during the past few years with the flourishing of a whole new genre of nonfiction. Seeded partly by the aging of the Baby Boomers, and partly by the seemingly shared sense that we live in darkening times, at least one corner of the publishing world has borne serious and interesting new fruit: absorbing personal memoirs centered on the elementary if widely avoided fact that no one stays in this earthly vale of tears for long.

Let’s dub that new genre the “death-oir.” Written somewhere toward the end of a given author’s life, or at least past its ostensible middle, the death-oir is a pithy (if the reader is lucky) summing up of what time has wrought — lessons learned, stories and reflections imparted. That some entries in the genre are penned when time’s winged chariot is audibly bearing down on the author only adds to the intensity. Certainly such is true of scientist Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture, for example, which sold in the millions following his death from pancreatic cancer at age 47. At times, as in Joan Didion’s latest volumes, the death-oir is unbearably heavy; at other times — as in Julian Barnes’s oddly charming 2008 Nothing to be Frightened Of, or Christopher Hitchens’s 2010 Hitch-22: A Memoir — it sparkles with bravado. Whatever the particular entries, it is a genre sharing one ironic footnote. The same internet that is killing the book has also made tapping out, enhancing, double-checking, and sharing personal thoughts easier than it ever was before. One way or another, we are all memoirists now — meaning that in addition to taxes and the grave, we can also be certain of many more death-oirs to come.

David Horowitz’s A Point in Time is one more entry in this budding genre, and it is another excellent one. Like its fellows, this book concerns the hefty matters that preoccupy most mortals more with every passing year: life, death, legacy; meaning amid the world’s sound and fury. On a more prosaic note, be forewarned that like many other books in these days of rising costs and declining readership, this one is short. Very short. Even so, the author of A Point in Time can be forgiven for asking readers to accept this brief but intense meditation as a book, rather than, say, as a pamphlet or a magazine essay in two parts. It’s just that good.

Known to much of the world as a conservative activist who takes no prisoners on his FrontPageMag site or anywhere else, Horowitz is also, as is less widely known (or admitted), an excellent prose stylist. His writing is intrinsically compelling, even when the subjects before him are intrinsically unwanted — as, say, death and decay admittedly do tend to be. As Norman Podhoretz, going to the heart of the matter, notes in his endorsement of this book, “Horowitz is so powerful a polemicist that it is often forgotten how beautifully he writes.”

The second reason why Horowitz can be forgiven his relative brevity here is that he has already left a sizable and important literary record behind him. From red-diaper baby to reconstructed radical, he has been writing his memoirs — and with them, the memoirs of his times — throughout his years. Among his many books, the 1989 volume Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the Sixties, for example — coauthored with frequent collaborator Peter Collier — definitively rewrote the prevailing benign political history of that era (inter alia rendering its apostate authors pariahs in all the expected places). Later, Horowitz’s 1997 autobiography Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey detailed his involvement with the New Left and subsequent step-by-step march to the starboard side of the political spectrum. There he named more names, righted more ideological wrongs, and proved as unflinching an observer of his own personal life as he was the lives of others. Alongside Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks, and a handful of other testimonials, these are books that appear in retrospect as isolated islands of truth in what was once a global sea of lies about Marxism and communism.

Melancholy yet elegiac, A Point in Time steps back from all that to ask whether, in effect, any of it mattered. The tent pole here is Marcus Aurelius, stoical author of the Meditations (as that classic has incorrectly been translated, Horowitz notes, from the original title of To Himself). From its disarming opening about the everyday act of taking dogs for a walk, the book quickly widens out to a broad philosophical plain.

His dogs, Horowitz observes, greet every walk with the same excitement, “as though life were an endless horizon always met for the first time . . . They do not contend with their fates but devour them as if their days will go on forever.” In this they are superior to unhappy human beings, who unlike dogs do know their ultimate fate and futilely — but inevitably — resist it. The solution to our common plight, if such exists, is for human beings to become more dog-like — in other words, more stoical. Yet the difficulty of doing just that eludes us all, including the author of this book.

Known to much of the world as a conservative activist who takes no prisoners on his FrontPageMag site or anywhere else, Horowitz is also, as is less widely known (or admitted), an excellent prose stylist.

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