Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
Book reviewing is an endeavor that hints at the undeniably mercenary aspects of the book business–you know, that distasteful transaction of exchanging filthy lucre for creations that can justifiably be labelled as art. Yet sometimes literary criticism transcends the quotidian role of simply selling books and can be said to attain artistic heights as lofty as the works being commented upon. Nowhere is this elevation of reviewing books to art itself more evident than in the writings of John Leonard. And now these works of astonishing erudition and wit and wisdom have been collected in a single paperback volume, Reading For My Life.
John Leonard’s career spanned a half century, from 1958 to 2008 and anyone seriously interested in what was happening in world literature and American culture during that time is remiss if they fail to read Leonard’s work. Beginning just out of college as a columnist at the National Review, Leonard quickly established himself as the daily book reviewer for the New York Times and eventually editor of the Times Book Review. He was also a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Harpers, Vanity Fair, Salon and Nation. But this resume only begins to suggest the brilliance of the man and his incredible impact upon the world of arts and letters.
Leonard was one of the first to recognize the genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, writing in the Times in a review that has since become legendary: “You emerge from this marvelous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire. One Hundred Years of Solitude… is a recapitulation of our evolutionary and intellectual experience.” He could also be savage towards writers or cultural shifts he considered pretentious or intellectually flimsy (Norman Mailer and the Beats) and devastatingly witty, as in his review of books about Bob Dylan (“Blowing His Nose in the Wind”). But in the end it is Leonard’s appreciation of the novel that makes this collection essential reading for any lover of fiction. As E.L. Doctorow writes in the introduction, “… the novel was to John Leonard the presiding art–always in its intentions, if only occasionally in its realization, a major act of the culture.”
Or as Joan Didion put it so well: “He was quite simply our most thrilling observer.”
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby.]