Wednesday, November 12, 2008

John Leonard, R.I.P.

Studs Terkel, you'd expect, but John Leonard? I was surprised to hear he'd died, and even more surprised to see his age, only 7 years older than me. But when I was starting out reviewing books and editing reviews for the Boston Phoenix and sending him plaintive letters about assigning me reviews for the New York Times Book Review, those 7 years were probably important. Anyway, he never replied.

When he ran the Book Review in the early 70s, it was one of the hottest publications around, of any kind. He was a reviewer--both of books and television--who I read and learned from. He brought an energy to his prose that lit up reviewing as much as Tom Wolfe lit up magazine journalism in those years. His energy and verbal playfulness extended to the headlines. In some issues, they were more brilliant than the reviews.

Throughout his career, as The Guardian notes, he was a "force for good." His reviews were worth reading for themselves, but he made the books he reviewed exciting as well. I'll bet that having him review your book was about all the reward you'd need for writing it. He loved writing, he loved books--and they loved him back.

He wrote: "The library is where I've always gone – for transcendence, of course, a zap to the synaptic cleft, the radioactive glow of genius in the dark; but also to get more complicated, for advice on how to be decent and brave; for narrative instead of scenarios, discrepancies instead of euphemism. In the library, that secretariat of dissidents, they don't lie to me."

I remember stealing as much of his style as I could manage in those days, as others have ever since--Mark Lotto in the New York Observer, who admits he learned to write reviews by reading Leonard, adds: "but as much as I write and however long I live, I'll never in print equal his warmth, his decency, his willingness to draw ethical lines and then not cross them, his talent for rubbing this book against that one to see what electricity popped out."

Here's another memory of Leonard's stint at the Times Book Review, the Washington Post obit, and Laura Miller's remembrance in Salon, where he returned to reviewing books. Laura assigned exactly one review from me as well. So I finally appeared under the same banner, though I never met him. But I read him, and something from his approach and attitude got through to me. I'm grateful for that, even if this form is "limping toward an undeserved obsolescence," as Laura says.

And from Laura's article, I learned as well that I've inadvertently quoted him in this very piece. He actually said, "the books we love, love us back." And of course, he said it first.

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