I will confess to never having heard of John Leonard before receiving this volume for review. In retrospect that seems surprising, if not outright embarrassing. Leonard wrote regularly for 50 years both as a book reviewer and as a cultural commentator, and if many of his essays appeared in places that I don’t typically read—Playboy, The Nation, The New York Review of Books—well, he also published in places that I have read, such as the New York Times Book Review (where he served as editor) and, especially, Harper’s.
Add to this his impressive range of topics, from the literary big guns of the’70s and 8’0s (Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing, EL Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov) to the pressing issues of the day (feminism, AIDS, politics, television), and Leonard’s is a voice that seems, more than most, to have been both a reflection and an amplification of its times. If all this sounds good to you, then it’s a fair bet that you’re going to love this book.
Reading for My Life is a collection of writings that stretches from 1958 to 2008, a neat half-century whose early concerns (“Epitaph for the Beat Generation”, “The Demise of Greenwich Village”) seem almost quaint compared to the life-and-death topics that Leonard expounds upon later (“AIDS Is Everywhere”, “Networks of Terror”). Leonard is never less than interesting, though, even when writing on topics that seem far removed from today’s headlines, or about writers whom the reader has, perhaps, not yet encountered.
Open to just about any page in this book and your eye is apt to fall on some tremendously memorable turn of phrase. About Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published novel: “The problem with Juneteenth is that it’s almost all sermons and jazzy dreaming.” He states that following 9/11, the television news networks “reverted to what they do worst, which is to represent the normal respiration of democratic intelligence.” In a single sentence he delineates the conundrum of Ed Sullivan: “From 1948 to 1971, every Sunday night at eight o’clock, a man who couldn’t sing, or dance, or spin a plate entertained fifty million Americans.”
Above all, it is writers and their books that stitch together this patchwork of musings. He has strong opinions on Toni Morrison and Amos Oz and Vladimir Nabokov, and he is not shy about sharing them. Many of those opinions are arguable, but all of them are smart. Leonard is a master of the snappy one-liner, the sound bite that renders even daunting works of literature that much more accessible. He tosses off these quips by the handful, and it’s these that make his writing so expressive, so vivid even for a reader who is unfamiliar with the subject at hand.
Milan Kundera is “a sixty-two-year-old melancholy child.” Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City makes you “want to go out and get drunk.” Of Nabokov, Leondard declares, “If he doesn’t win the Nobel Prize, it’s only because the Nobel Prize doesn’t deserve him.” These firecrackers can erupt at any time: in the first sentence of an essay, or as its punch line, or at any moment in between.
If literature and its authors are Leonard’s bread and butter, he nonetheless has an ear to the ground for other strains of pop culture. He’s brutal about Bob Dylan, when, on the occasion of Dylan’s 60th birthday, multiple biographies are released. In an essay entitled “Blowing His Nose in the Wind”, Leonard writes that “because Joan Baez loved [Dylan] a lot, I have to assume that he is not as much of a crep as he so often seems. But I’m entitled to doubts about anybody whose favorite Beatle was George.” (Not entirely fair: John was always my “favorite” Beatle, but George had the best songs.)
Leonard was also, according to the rhapsodic introduction by EL Doctorow, a lively and frequent commentator about television culture. There are few examples here, although the lengthy essay about Ed Sullivan proves to be a highlight.
This array of articles represents a range of styles and approaches, from quick pieces about Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which he loved (“It is fierce intelligence, all sinew, prowling among the emotions”) to long discourses on such novels as Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, which he also loved but which I must confess to have no intention of ever reading.
There are some obvious omissions. I would have liked to hear what he thought of Vonnegut, for example, or of the whole “minimalist” school of writing that so dominated the conversation in the ‘80s—Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Mary Robison and so on. Leonard’s attention, at least as represented by these selections, seemed to have turned more toward the loud, the attention-getting, the—dare I say it?—obvious.
That’s no real criticism, though, when what is here is so entertaining, albeit in a highbrow, well-read, SAT-vocab-flexing kind of way. Leonard may well represent a vanished species, or at least an increasingly rare one: the man of letters who communicated through the medium of the printed page. It’s easy to wonder if, were he just starting out these days, he’d be working some obscure job somewhere, blogging on the weekends, trying to work up a loyal audience of a couple thousand readers. God knows, there are plenty of people like that out there, though it’s doubtful that too many of them could hope to keep up with Leonard’s witty phrasing, his voracious literary appetite and wide-open range of interests.