Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008

By John Leonard

Viking | 2012 | 381 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Amanda Martin

“...I found that to get free copies of books from New York publishers, all you had to do was promise to review them, ”writes John Leonard at the start of Reading For My LIfe.  “So while I worked on my third first novel, I also scheduled myself to talk about brand new books like V, Herzog, Hall of Mirrors . . . And I talked about new novels from abroad like The Tin Drum, The Golden Notebook, and The Mandarins. . . Loving such books wasn’t exactly molecular biology or particle physics; you merely had to trust the tingle in your scalp, a kind of sonar, and their deeper chords possessed you.”       

   Reading for My LIfe, Writings, 1958-2008, is a collection of Leonard’s reviews and essays culled from a career that spanned more than 50 years. Edited by his wife, Sue Leonard, it is a book whose publication Leonard, who died in 2008,  did not live to see. Besides the essays and reviews, from 1958’s The Cambridge Scene, written when Leonard was 19-years-old, to the 2005 review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, it also includes a lovely introduction by E.L. Doctorow and a final section of appreciative essays and remembrances by friends and family who loved and valued him.

Being a lover of books myself and therefore an avid reader of book reviews, I had probably read Leonard prior to 1988, when he began appearing on television where he ‘delivered myself of a five-minute ‘media criticism,’ a sort of sermonette, on CBS Sunday Mornings.”

Those appearances though is where I first became aware of him (he writes that people began to recognize him and stop him on the street to ask him if he wrote his own stuff) and I feel lucky to have watched him, because I can hear his voice as I read his words, as he shares his love of books and authors with some of the most beautiful prose language you will ever read — it will make your scalp tingle.

Listen to him on Don DeLillo’s Libra (a novel on the Kennedy assassination): “And what does the historian decide - after his access to goats’ heads and pajama tops; psychiatrists and KGB defectors; confidential Agency files and transcripts of the secret hearings of congressional committees, wiretaps, polygraphs, Dictabelt recordings, postoperative X-rays, computer enhancements of the Zapruder film, Jack Ruby’s mother’s dental chart, microphotographs of strands of Oswald’s pubic hair (smooth, not knobby), FBI reports on dreams ... and the long roster of the conveniently dead?”

Talking about Norman Mailer in a review of Harlot’s Ghost (a novel about the CIA): “When his battery’s charged, Mailer windmills from one paragraph to the next — baroque, anal, Talmudic, olfactory, portentous, loopy, coy, Egyptian; down and dirty  in the cancer, the aspirin or the plastic; shooting moons on sheer vapor; blitzed by paranoia and retreating for a screen pass, as if bitten in the pineal gland by a deranged Swinburne, with metaphors so meaning-moistened that they stick to our thumbs with ‘intellections’ (as he once put it) slapped on ‘like adhesive plasters.’ . . . Ghosts! Pirates! Indians! Animism! Alchemy!

“You either like this stuff or you don’t, and I do.”

(Which is my comment on Leonard’s style as well. I do like.)

At his death at the age of 69 from lung cancer, John Leonard  was the television critic for New York Magazine and a regular book critic for Harper’s Magazine.  He had been the book editor of The New York Times for four years during the 1970‘s and afterwards a cultural critic for it; he contributed freelance reviews to the paper almost until his death. Besides CBS Sunday Morning, Leonard could also be heard regularly on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.  He was a reviewer or contributing editor for practically every national print outlet, including The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Salon, New York, The Atlantic Monthly, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post Book World. Besides publishing many volumes of criticism, Leonard also wrote four novels. Considering the path taken, Leonard writes in Reading For My LIfe:

“Looking back on what became of me, I’m sorry I didn’t turn out to be Dostoyevsky or Gunter Grass or Doris Lessing. I know perfectly well that the relationship between critic and author is more often parasitic that it’s symbiotic. ‘Insects sting’ Netizsche told us, ‘not in malice, but because they want to live. It is the same for critics, they desire our blood, not our pain.’

“But when you love these books, they love you back. Having identified with someone else’s imagination, having gone through that shadowy door into realms of feeling never glimpsed before with such luster, having seen centaurs and witches and flying fish and bare ruined choirs and the glowing cores and burning grids and neon clouds and crystal nerves and singing spheres of cyberspace, of thought itself — you are more interesting, and so is the world.”

You will want to read Leonard because he is writing about are books that will always be worth reading; authors that will always be worth studying: Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Joan Didion. Leonard does not just concentrate on the book at hand, he seems to have read every book by the author in question and is able to bring in themes and characters to compare and contrast from them all with the current work; as well as a framework of history, philosophy and psychology. And Leonard’s insights into the authors and their works is worth reading.

For example —

In a review of Milan Kundera’s Immortality:  “He has written this novel in front of our eyes, out of chance encounters with enigmatic strangers and radio news reports of anomalous events, and imaginary conversations among the lofty likes of Goethe and Hemingway, and snippets of books, and shards of memory. He has interpolated little essays — on journalism, sentimentality, coincidence, astrology, and the phases of the erotic moon — that turn out, of course, not to be digressions at all. Everything fits inside like the hasp on the jewel box or the folding of a fan. Left in the air, like smoke, are ghosts and grace notes.

“I’m sure there’s a musical analogue; there usually is in Kundera’s fiction; Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Beethoven’s last quarter or any one of sixteen fugues by Bach. ‘Our lives are composed like music,’ Kundera told us in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ‘and if we listen well, they will speak to us in the heightened language of secret motifs, which are really the accidents of our becoming transformed into significance by a roused imagination.’

On Salman Rushdie’s controversial The Satanic Verses: “Headlines keep getting in the way . . . For a couple of minutes, let’s try to see the book through the bonfires of its burning.

“As much as Islam, Salman Rushdie blasphemes Thatcherism. He’s unkind, too, to V.S Naipul. ‘Pitting levity against gravity,’ altogether impious The Satanic Verses is one of those go-for-broke ‘metafictions,’ a grand narrative and Monty Python send-up of history, religion, and popular culture; Hindu cyclic and Muslim dualistic; postcolonial identity crisis and modernist pastiche; Bombay bombast and stiff-upper-liposuction; babu babytalk and ad agency neologism; cinema gossip; elephant masks, pop jingles, lazy puns, kinky sex ad schadenfreude; a sort of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City — from which this slyboots Author-God tip-and-twinkletoes away, with a cannibal grin. ‘Who am I?’ he asks us. ‘Let’s put it this way: Who has the best tune?’

The Satanic Verses lacks the ravening poser, the great gulp, of Midnight’s Children and Shame. It bites off the heads of its characters instead of digesting their essences. It’s got too much on its troubled mind to make a symphonic noise out of so many discords. Of course, in its huge dishevelment, its Leaves of Grass lurchings and scourges, whistles and vapors, belly laughs and belly flops,  it’s infinitely more interesting than those hundreds of neat little novels we have to read between Rushdies.”

The reviews and essays are in chronological order and the year is listed in the table of contents, but not at the top of each review.  It is interesting to read them as artifacts of their time. For instance in his 1958 essay “The Demise of Greenwich Village” it is startling to read: “Walk into any bar, and the first thing you notice is the homosexuals” and “The Village is one of the few publicized habitats of the lesbian.” Good to know that 50 years later homosexuality is no longer looked upon as a subject for anthropological discussion, but one of civil rights. (For the record, the 20-year-old Leonard was not then, nor was he ever, homophobic).

Sometimes knowing the future is gives added resonance to Leonard’s pronouncements, such as in his 1962 review of Richard Nixon’s Six Crisis. “...I read and review his book because I am fascinated by the flower of rot, and I think more interesting and instructive than Richard Nixon the success is Richard Nixon the failure. I think that is more meaningful than the man of tricks is the man of tricks reduced to desperation.”

Sometimes he can sound almost prescient: from his 1978 review of Edward Said’s Orientalism: “Explain please, our ignorance and resentment of Islam. How long is this medieval hangover, this Constantinople of the fearful imagination supposed to last? “ And then there is the more things change the more they remain the same: in his 1993 open letter to the newly elected Bill Clinton - Dear Bill (on the Occasion of his Inauguration) - Leonard writes: “I’d like you to listen to the dispossessed. The world is full of them. . . But we know you’ve got the Justice Department to fix up first off, and then health care, and after that (who knows?) maybe campaign financing so that the greedhead lobbyists won’t disembowel every other program you propose. So I’ll stick here to the domestic dispossessed.” And he goes on to list women (although) “ . . . I suppose I don’t have to remind you to listen to the women, not with Hillary around. Nor to the children, not with Marian Wright Edelman standing right next to Hillary. But you ought to be listening to the inner cities . . . “ and he continues, lecturing Clinton on the difference between the median household worth between Anglo and non-Anglo households in Los Angeles, referencing statistics in Michael Katz’s The Undeserving Poor which show that only 0.8% of the GNP is spent on welfare, mostly for Social Security, citing Barbara Ehrenreich, who has pointed out that statistically the number of rich white men who have never married is almost exactly the same as the number of poor black single mothers and then quoting her,  “In the absence of all the old-fashioned ways of redistributing wealth — progressive taxation, job programs, adequate welfare, social services, and other pernicious manifestations of pre-Reaganite ‘big government’ — the rich will just have to marry the poor.”

There is more. Fifty years worth of Leonard championing civil rights, women’s liberation, the need to pay attention to writers who are not white and male (Toni Morrison invites him to go with her to receive the Nobel prize because of his support). He examines the Ed Sullivan Show, giving us a cultural history of the 1950s and ‘60s and the move from a Global Village with a shared common culture (white as that may be) to the disintegration of the 1960’s where households had more than one TV set, the number of channels increased from 3 to 100, and kids and parents had different music (though they could watch all of it together on The Ed Sullivan Show). Fifty years worth of Leonard loving books and championing the artists who create them.

Leonard knows so much, is passionate about so much, and it is contagious.

Read this book slowly, no more than a chapter a night. Maybe a chapter a month. Give yourself time to look up the words, look up the references, check out the book he is writing about, or the other books that Leonard is referencing. Savor his words, enjoy his intelligence, feel his passion. And laugh out loud at his humor.    This is rich stuff.

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