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Writings, 1958-2008

by John Leonard

Pub Date: March 19th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-670-02308-0
Publisher: Viking

A selection of reviews and essays from the celebrated literary critic, followed by a sort of festschrift with contributors ranging from family members to noted authors (Toni Morrison, Mary Gordon and others).

Leonard (1939–2008), long-time reviewer for and sometime editor of the New York Times Book Review, displays an astonishing erudition throughout these pieces, chronologically arranged. (Many readers, however, will be disappointed to find no external indications of when and where the piece initially appeared.) Sentences sometimes feature as many as nine allusions, such as the one that mentions Yeats, Pound, Lessing, Bellow, Rudolf Steiner, Rosicrucians, Alpha and Omega, Jarrell and Auden. Yet there is often a playfulness—an informality—in his prose, as well. In the initial piece (about how he reads for his living), he recalls, “I became an intellectual because I couldn’t get a date.” And: “Like God and television,” he writes in a long and wonderful essay about TV and popular culture, “we see around corners.” Leonard could also bring tears at unexpected moments. For example, he ends his review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, with “I cannot imagine dying without this book.” He ends a piece about Morrison, a writer he championed, with, “I was holding my breath, and she took it away.” Included in the collection are prescient reviews of Maxine Hong Kingston, Robert Stone, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Amos Oz, Ralph Ellison, Maureen Howard and numerous other luminaries. There is a moving piece about 9/11 and another on the AIDS crisis. More than once, he blasts Bob Dylan for his treatment of Joan Baez (whom Leonard adored). Other, unsurprising targets of his disdain included Richard Nixon and Peggy Noonan.

Glistening evidence that a great critic needs both a bookworm’s habits and a capacious heart.