Aaron Arnold's Reviews > Memory Hold-the-Door: The Autobiography of John Buchan

Memory Hold-the-Door by John Buchan
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's review
Apr 10, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: biography, favorites, read-in-2010
Read in January, 2010

I picked this up after reading that John F. Kennedy considered it one of his favorite books and after finishing it I can see why. John Buchan, who held the awesomely P.G. Wodehouse-esque peerage of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was a pioneering Scottish crime fiction author who became Governor General of Canada back in 1935 when it was necessary to import bored British aristocrats for the position instead of bored local personalities. This is his memoir, and I took away two main things from it. First, he's a seriously great writer; all that Greek and Latin study that the British school system went for in those days really paid off, and I spent a large part of the book paying more attention to his prose than what he was talking about just because of the shining clarity of it. I can see why JFK, who had an expensive prep school education himself, would like it so much. Second, he's one of the all time champion brown-nosers and name-droppers: if there's a way to mention that he Knows People, he will find it, and in the process deliver some of the most preposterous compliments you will ever read. There's just no way for me to convey the awe-inspiring magnitude of the rhetorical handjobs he delivers in the book; each page-long encomium, packed with multilingual poetry, ethereal philosophical musings, and lengthy classical allusions is a work of art that has to be read in full to be properly appreciated. When I get famous I'm definitely going to pay someone to write like this about me. As far as his actual life went, a lot of it struck me as dull (Oxford College back around the turn of the 20th century is almost unbearably uninteresting to an American like me) or bizarrely self-obsessed. He served as a colonial administrator in South Africa during the Boer War, one of the most brutal wars in modern history, and according to the book it seems to have consisted almost entirely of hiking in the veldt, reading Euripides, and loads of smashingly erudite jawing about the Meaning of Empire with the jolly good chaps in the Foreign Office. I guess that's a reasonable takeaway for a person whose entire career seems to have been to hang out with famous people, but it was a big struggle to reconcile Buchan's obvious intelligence with his frequently stunningly banal observations; I got frequent vibes of "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?". Other than that, though, he seems to have had a pretty eventful life, and the ending rumination on his experiences is a highly recommended display of thoughtful erudition in action. He was probably one of the most entertaining dinner guests of all time.
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