Book review: ‘Reading for My Life,’ essays by John Leonard

Reading for My Life

Writings, 1958-2008

John Leonard

Edited by Sue Leonard


Viking: 382 pp., $35

I want to talk about criticism, about what it is and how it operates: an issue that was one of the abiding passions of John Leonard’s career. And not just criticism as a form of service journalism (although, in part, that too) but criticism as an expression of social and cultural engagement, a function of political or literary life. It’s no coincidence that on the day before he died — of lung cancer, at age 69 — Leonard spent hours waiting to vote for Barack Obama for president. “Whatever else he’s done or failed to do,” he wrote in a 1991 review of Norman Mailer’s novel “Harlot’s Ghost,” "… Mailer — our very own Knight-Errant, Don Quixote, Tripmaster Monkey, Zapata, and Scaramouche — has at last made the political personal.” Leonard may as well have been talking about himself.

That Mailer piece, along with 50 others, appears in “Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008,” a posthumous selection of Leonard’s work, edited by his widow, Sue. The key to the enterprise is his engagement, which is not to say that the book doesn’t have any flaws. As a writer, Leonard could be lapidary; some of the essays and reviews here meander, getting lost in language, in digression, although to his credit, he almost always makes it back. He was known to write about friends, to back away from negative criticism, seeing his role as that of champion to the writers he admired. The first time I met him, shortly after he became literary editor of the Nation in 1995, he asked what I had against “poor Frank Conroy,” whose novel, “Body & Soul,” I had dismissed in the magazine a few years before. The truth was that I had nothing against Conroy, that I revered Conroy (his 1967 memoir “Stop-Time” remains a touchstone), which is why I’d been so disappointed in his novel, a disappointment born of love.

Yet more to the point — and here Leonard and I are in firm agreement — literature should provoke a strong reaction, an essential connection when nothing else will suffice. Leonard understood, as he writes again and again in this collection, that "[w]e must live together, and will die alone,” and that a book, in the words of Franz Kafka, “must be an axe for the frozen sea in us.” That this is, in the end, a futile endeavor is a key part of his faith: to pay attention, in the little time allowed us, to the things that matter, not to be distracted by ephemera and gloss. "[P]opular culture,” he observes in the title essay, “is … like going to the Automat to buy an emotion. The thrills are cheap and the payoffs predictable and, after a while, the repetition is a bummer. Whereas books are where we go to complicate ourselves.” Amen, brother. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For Leonard, this matter of complication was political as well as personal — shades of Mailer — a passion, or a commitment, that he regularly pursued. In 1971, as editor of the New York Times Book Review, he ran an issue focusing on Vietnam and throughout the pieces that make up “Reading for My Life” (written for the New York Times, NPR, the Nation and the New York Review of Books), he keeps circling back to a few key points: our fetish for money, our inability to be generous with one another, our cruelty and violence and his, yes, disappointment that we have not made ourselves better, a disappointment born of love.

Here he is in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11: “We are apparently supposed to shut up and eat our spinach. Asking questions, proposing alternatives, making distinctions, arguing analogies, remembering history, or criticizing our stand-tall President is, for the moment, unpatriotic and maybe even unmanly. Wave that flag, stuff that qualm.” And yet, even in that moment, he can’t stop looking to the writers, to literature as a counter-force. “Grace Paley, on the other wonderful hand,” he enthuses a few lines later, “suggests … that we bomb Afghanistan with three tons of wheat, rye, and rice, since they are starving: ‘If we do it with a vicious attitude, maybe that will be enough for some people.’”

What Leonard is doing is to articulate a worldview through his criticism, to refract his reading through a wider lens. That is the critic’s obligation, and it emerges, in ways both subtle and pointed, over the half century of work collected here. Leonard was widely credited with bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Maxine Hong Kingston to the attention of an American readership, and “Reading for My Life” features loving tributes to all three.

More powerful is his 1989 review of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” — a piece that not only addresses the novel (“‘The Satanic Verses’ lacks the ravening power, the great gulp, of ‘Midnight’s Children’ and “Shame’”) but also uses that discussion to take on the response to the fatwa on the author, an abomination aided and abetted by anyone who ever took the book off the shelves or suggested that having written it was ill-advised. “It’s been a disgraceful week,” Leonard writes. “A maniac puts out a $5.2-million contract on one of the best writers in the English language, and how does the civilized West respond? France and Germany won’t publish ‘The Satanic Verses’; Canada won’t sell it; … and a brave new philistinism struts its stuff all over Mediapolis, USA, telling us that Rushdie’s unreadable anyway.”

On the one hand, it’s easy to read such a statement through the filter of history, or even nostalgia; these days, Rushdie can be found on Twitter, and “The Satanic Verses” is No. 6,200 in’s sales rankings. There’s a larger question, though, about what we stand for, about how literature embodies not just the best but the most ineffable aspects of who we are.

Read this book for its insights into Philip Roth, Joan Didion and Michael Chabon and also for its occasional misses (on Jonathan Lethem and Bob Dylan, in particular, Leonard almost entirely misses the point). But even more, read it for its passion, its sense that criticism can take us to the heart of everything: aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, political. Read it for its defense of idealism, its certainty that, as Leonard writes in an essay on Vaclav Havel, “By behaving as if we are free — at student protests, on strike, by refusing to vote in the farcical elections, or even by going to a rock concert — we rehabilitate ‘values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.’” Havel, like Leonard, is dead now, and the Iron Curtain fell a long time ago. But the power of such ideas to stir us lingers, as we face the complications of our own fallen world.