Critical Mass

“The Books We Love Love Us Back:“John Leonard 1939-2008 RIP


With sadness we learn of the passing of John Leonard, incomparable critic and mentor to many, supporter of books and writers new and not so new, long time New York Times Book Review editor and critic, and a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle. In his comments when he won the NBCC Sandrof award for lifetime achievement two years ago, Leonard had this to say about a lifetime of reading and reviewing:

John Leonard: “My whole life I have been waving the names of writers, as if we needed rescue. From these writers, for almost 50 years, I have received narrative, witness, companionship, sanctuary, shock, and steely strangeness; good advice, bad news, deep chords, hurtful discrepancy, and amazing grace. At an average of five books a week, not counting all those sighed at and nibbled on before they go to the Strand, I will read 13,000. Then I’m dead. Thirteen thousand in a lifetime, about as many as there are new ones published every MONTH in this country.

“It’s not enough, and yet rich to excess. The books we love, love us back. In gratitude, we should promise not to cheat on them—not to pretend we’re better than they are; not to use them as target practice, agit-prop, trampolines, photo ops or stalking horses; not to sell out scruple to that scratch-and-sniff info-tainment racket in which we posture in front of experience instead of engaging it, and fidget in our cynical opportunism for an angle, a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of principle, and strike attitudes like matches, to admire our wiseguy profiles in the mirrors of the slicks. We are reading for our lives, not performing like seals for some fresh fish. Listen to Jean-Paul Sartre, a young brat, on first entering his grandfather’s library: “I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms.” Then recall Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” in which Denver warned her ghostly sister about their difficult mother: “Watch out for her; she can give you dreams.” And finally remember what Maxine Hong Kingston told a reporter after her house burned down, with all of her manuscripts, in the Oakland, California, fires: ‘Did you know that when paper burns,’ she said, ‘it is very beautiful? It’s just amazing to look at a burned book. It looks like feathers, the thin pages, and it’s still book shaped, and you touch it and it disintegrates. It makes you realize that it’s all air. It’s just inspiration and air and it’s just returned to that.’

“How magical is THAT realism? Very.”

In her citation when Leonard won the Sandrof award, NBCC board member Linda Wolfe quoted the master himself on the role of those of us who are book critics:

John Leonard: “Our job is mainly to try to stay sane, to trust our one-on-one encounter with a book, and not the publicity machines that tell us what we are supposed to feel, to listen, as quietly and as generously as our temperaments permit, to the voice telling the story; to talk to the wary reader as though he or she were someone we loved, and knew to be busy, and hoped to persuade. Not exactly a heroic calling, I agree … But if we resolve to do as little damage as possible, we will at least be honest and might even do good.”

And here is a selection of his reviews.

And his comments on an NBCC panel on ethics at the BEA (his Kissinger moment). “Quite frankly, it is a parasitic profession. Without the genius, we’re nothing…”

His New York Review of Books reviews.

His “Harper’s” column.

His archive in The Nation.

His New York magazine archives.

NBCC board member Scott McLemee’s tribute here.

Update: And Eric Banks at the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm. And Hillary Frey. And Emily Gordon. And Laura Miller.

Send your reminiscensces to us.