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Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 Hardcover – March 15, 2012
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“Leonard could write in the style of a man who has brought a scimitar to a knife fight. . . . This greatest-hits package doubles—and triples and scores—as a history of global culture and American literature, as a shadow canon and an intellectual history. . . . Because the culture has shattered—chaos, heat, fractals—Leonard’s achievement is unrepeatable.”
—Troy Patterson, The Slate Book Review
“There was more than a touch of the poet in John Leonard, alongside the cheerful investigator. . . . Let's be grateful for this eloquent sample of his writings, rescued from the dust of past periodicals.”
—Phillip Lopate, The New York Times Book Review
“A brilliant collection of writings on politics, social and cultural engagement and literary life. . . . Read this book for its insights into Philip Roth, Joan Didion and Michael Chabon. . . . But even more, read it for its passion, its sense that criticism can take us to the heart of everything: aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, political.”
—David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
“As a writer, Leonard was often virtuosic in the vein of the New Journalism, but with more heart; as a thinker, he was both confident and aware of the follies of confidence. He could be charmingly self-deprecating, gently bemused, or (more frequently) unapologetically angry. . . . He paid his fellow writers the great compliment of his fully engaged (even if enraged) attention.”
—The Boston Globe
“Nobody could write a book review like John Leonard. I don’t know if anybody ever will. . . . The essays collected here will rekindle your love of the book review - and of books themselves. . . This was how one ought to write about books . . . : with naked passion, unabashed intellectualism and, above all, that elusive, unteachable quality called grace. . . . Leonard has such a capacious mind that it could leap from television to books to the theater to the movie screen without ever so much as slipping. Above all, he endowed his words with vitality - that is the greatest lesson one can learn from his work.”
—Alexander Nazaryan, The New York Daily News
“The late John Leonard was brilliant, witty, earnest, brave, erudite, stubborn, poetic and totally smitten by literature. . . . His work reflected his soul. . . . Reading for My Life . . . remind[s] us that essays can be as diverse and creative as novels and poems — sometimes more so — and that criticism is more than just a matter of what one admires or despises. . . . At its best, criticism is a passionate engagement with another imagination.”
—Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune
“This book’s fantastic. . . . You should buy this book and have it in your life in exactly the same way you should have the Everyman edition of Orwell and Didion. . . . The thing that makes Leonard’s books such infinite things is how deeply he believed in literature.”—Kenyon Review Blog
“An excellent collection, a greatest hits of glossolalia. . . . Town crier, troubadour, and street preacher—Leonard managed to be all at once. With him, a single sentence could turn into a high-wire act.”
—Liz Brown, Bookforum
“A prolific, wide-eyed, and deeply erudite observer of the passing contemporary scene, equally at home writing about sitcoms and Nobel laureates. . . . Leonard was not only a brilliant critic, he was also a superb reporter. . . . Leonard was always writing about something larger than what he was writing about. . . . His love of good writing is not only infectious, it’s also mind-expanding because his tastes were so elastic and catholic. . . . John Leonard was a writer of such consummate grace, wit, and provocation that it doesn’t matter what he settled on as his subject.”
—Bill Morris, The Millions
“Great fun to read. . . . Leonard commands love and devotion.”—The Daily Beast
“[John Leonard’s] ecstatic, exhaustive, amassing—enthusiastic!—sentences, nestled in the pages of The New York Review of Books or Harper’s or The New York Times, were a delight to me for many years. I’m even more delighted to have so many of them in one place.”
—Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, The Paris Review Daily
“Exhilarating. . . . [Leonard’s] erudition on a dizzying array of subjects--flashing like fireworks in lists that sometimes stretch to 30 or more references--is never offered for its own sake. Instead, it fuels the infectious enthusiasm of Leonard's standing invitation to join him on a roller-coaster ride in the amusement park of contemporary culture. . . . The vitality of Leonard's prose helps his incisive criticism withstand the passage of time.”
—Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness
“A bibliophile's treasure chest. . . . This book proves that there's one thing almost as good as reading books--and that's reading a book about books.”
—Ann LaFarge, The Hudson Valley News
“Reading For My Life has many, many memorable high points. . . . [Leonard] had a way of taking on the big books other critics found intimidating and methodically taking them apart, often dispassionately, to see what made them tick, to lay out in front of himself the bedrock urges that sprang the thing into being in the first place. He found nothing too recondite, and he could not be cowed (he used to say he had more eyes than a housefly, and everything he saw strengthened what he knew). . . . It feels very strange, still, not to have John Leonard’s voice still going strong in the back-of-the-issue book pages of all the nation’s magazines, but this anthology is some consolation at least.”
—Open Letters Monthly
“Leonard (1939–2008), long-time reviewer for and sometime editor of New York Times Book Review, displays an astonishing erudition throughout these pieces. . . . There is often a playfulness—an informality—in his prose. . . . Leonard could also bring tears at unexpected moments. . . . Glistening evidence that a great critic needs both a bookworm’s habits and a capacious heart.”
"'Extraordinary' is indeed the word for that man. He did as much service to letters in this country as anyone, and he did so with a protean, omnivore's flair. We shall not see his like again."
"No one but John could bring the honor he brought-the respect, the illumination, the sheer catch-your-breath brilliance-to whatever got his attention, whether it was a book or a piece of political folly or the day's most unthinkable news. He made the connections no one else thought of making. He made the impenetrable lucid, transparent. He was quite simply our most thrilling observer."
"One of the beauties of literature is that it reminds us that life is still, and always, there to be lived. John Leonard is not with us anymore, yet he's with us forever. He writes with his heart on fire. He wakes us up out of our ease. He disturbs and he soothes and he provokes. He's a gentleman. A scholar. A national treasure. Literature would not be the same without him. He understood- and therefore understands-what goes on at the coalface of language."
“[John Leonard] was more than one of the most influential critics of our age. . . . Leonard was the critic who helped us make the most sense of postwar, midcentury American writers and their postmodern successors. His lyrical and deeply erudite reviews and essays read like ebullient jazz riffs on pages designed for tasteful adagios. To read John Leonard is to engage in a Vulcan mind-meld in which the tumble of information and insight is so one-sided as to leave the reader exhausted from the effort of pretending to hold up one's end of the conversation. His judgments never failed to exude a generosity of spirit, even while administering a much-needed slap of critical evenhandedness.”
—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Books like these are where young reviewers go to learn the trade. . . . Writing about writing, Leonard always trained his attention on the single intelligence that had brought the book into being. . . . John Leonard himself was about as benevolent as such forces get.”
—Christian Lorentzen, The New York Observer
“Eclectic and enormously appealing. . . . What remains with the reader throughout the collection is an unwavering moral plumb line that connects the essays, displaying Leonard’s abiding respect for women, authors from different cultures, and nearly always for the writers and the artistic process.”
—The Seattle Times
About the Author
John Leonard (1939-2008) 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, and New York, and the daily book reviewer for the New York Times. He also appeared regularly on NPR's Fresh Air and CBS's Sunday Morning. Leonard wrote four novels and served for four years as the executive editor of the New York Times Book Review. In 2006 he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle's prestigious Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
E. L. Doctorow’s novels include The March, City of God, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Billy Bathgate. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Humanities Medal. E. L. Doctorow lives in New York.
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"In 1947, a young American and a middle-aged Japanese climbed a tower in Tokyo to look at the bombed temple and the burnt-out plain of the Asakusa. The twenty-three-year-old American, in U.S. Army PX jacket, was the critic Donald Richie. The forty-eight-year-old Japanese, wearing a kimono and a fedora, was the novelist Kawabata. Kawabata spoke no English; Richie, no Japanese, and their interpreter stayed home, sick in bed with a cold. And so they talked in writers. That is, Richie said, "Andre Gide." Kawabata thought about it, then replied, "Thomas Mann." They both grinned. And they'd go on grinning the rest of the afternoon, trading names like Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stefan Zweig; Colette and Proust.
It's a lovely story, isn't it? Two men on a tower, after a war, waving the names of writers as if they were signal flags or semaphores... I take it personally. It seems to me that my whole life I've been standing on some tower or pillbox or a trampoline, waving the names of writers, as if we needed rescue. And the first person I had to rescue was myself."
Me too John, me too.