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John Wilson

On Eloquence

The doom-and-gloom squad is at it again. No one is reading anymore, they tell us. Not reading books, not reading magazines, not even cereal boxes. What medicine is prescribed? One popular remedy is to get everyone in a particular "community" reading One Book.

If I told you—really told you—how much I loathe such campaigns, you'd think I was cracked. Ucchh. The mere thought fills me with bile. One Book? An unholy union of  groupthink and state-of-the-art marketing, overlaid with a frosting of pure kitsch.

But if a reporter or a Christian radio person called me today and asked, What book should all Thinking Evangelicals be reading, what book should be distributed at the next convention or forum or summit? (for instance, the midwinter gathering of my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, or the latest confab of the emerging Emergents, even if they disdain the "evangelical" label, or Gabe Lyons' Fermi Project), I would propose a little book by Denis Donoghue, just published by Yale University Press, On Eloquence.

Donoghue is a literary critic, wide-ranging, "distinguished," as they say. His book Warrenpoint, about his Catholic boyhood and youth in Ireland and his police sergeant father, is one of the finest memoirs I've read in the past quarter-century. (I've wondered if this book was one small influence among many others that led our daughter Mary to Rome.) Published by Knopf in 1990, it is available second-hand via Amazon for prices starting at 21 cents.

Edward Said talked about "late style." Donoghue's last several books—Speaking of Beauty, American Classics, and now On Eloquence—fit that rubric. They are powerfully idiosyncratic, enormously learned, allusive, at once concentrated and ruminative. In fact, they are eloquent:

Eloquence does not vex its own creation. Delighting in difference, it opposes—but without argument—the otherwise omnivorous culture of the same. We value it as a sign of such freedom as we are likely to enjoy. ...

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