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Reluctant Farewell

<i> Steve Wasserman is Book Editor of The Times</i>

Richard Eder is retiring from The Times. Today’s review will be his last for this newspaper, alas. Now 66 years old, Eder has served as the paper’s Book Critic since joining The Times in 1982; his column also appeared simultaneously in Newsday. In 1987, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his criticism. That same year he received the annual citation of the National Book Critics Circle. Before joining The Times, he had been with the New York Times for many years as a reporter, foreign correspondent, movie critic and chief drama critic.

At this newspaper, he delivered opinions on 70 or 80 novels and story collections each year. He became one of America’s most vibrant and incisive literary critics. Taken as a whole, his weekly essays and reviews have amounted to a profound rumination on the manifold ways in which humankind has set about to invent and imagine itself through the tales it tells to make sense of an otherwise impenetrable universe.

His is a feat nearly unique in modern American journalism. It exudes a critical spirit, almost absent from the pages of our daily newspapers, a kind of oxygen imparting a palpable sense of life-affirming seriousness and joy to readers of all kinds. Eder has dared to go his own way in, as Murray Kempton once observed of a gifted editor, “heroic confidence that his personal taste is quite enough to satisfy a fair number of the rest of us.” The point, Kempton went on to say, “is not to be current but to make of oneself a current and that only those indifferent to fashion are equipped for the truly intense and necessary commitment to style.”

Richard Eder’s love for the life of the mind, his avidity for all things human, his passionate commitment to the thinking and feeling life have richly informed his criticism, making his work as necessary as breathing. His writing is mercifully free of the cliches that too often clutter the ordinary reviewer’s prose. Words, Eder has written, “are bestowed as you bestow something of value; as something searched for, put together and delivered in a fashion that is individual to each speaker, with the craftsman’s signature chisel-mark upon it. They are also withheld as you may withhold something of value. There is no good speech that does not spring from a bed of taciturnity.”

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Alive to the very act of courage it takes to write, he never lost the belief that great writing matters greatly; that it involves us morally, socially and personally in profound and often unexpected ways. He has had no patience for fashionable theories of academic criticism, which he found divorced from real life, full of contempt for ordinary readers, whose abilities to absorb the difficult and think for themselves commanded his respect.

It has been his job (and also his temperament), as he has observed, mainly to see not forests but trees. Just as it is the task of a carpenter to make, say, a chair, it is the critic’s job to make a review--a sedentary perch from which the reader may contemplate not the arboreal whole but to locate and consider a particular bit of wood.

That task, by turns painful and pleasurable, is what Eder has excelled at, and it is the nearest thing to the experience of the individual passionate reader.

For his long memory, sense of humor and irony, unrivaled judgment and taste and peerless ability to communicate to readers with an enviable economy of expression and style and grace, Richard Eder will be missed in these pages.

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