John Leonard Died

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11/06/2008 4:48 PM |

John Leonard, who writes or I guess wrote about books as well as anyone I’ve ever read, the editor of the Times Book Review in the early 70s and a book reviewer for the paper in the late 70s, formerly the literary co-editor of The Nation and still a contributor there and to the New York Review of Books, a commentator on CBS’s Sunday Morning, long the TV critic for New York and the book critic for Harper’s, died yesterday, and I didn’t even know he was sick.

(Though I probably should have, I guess, from the last paragraph of his NYRB review of The Year of Magical Thinking — later reshaped as the introduction to Joan Didion’s collected nonfiction.)

John Leonard’s “New Books” column in Harper’s was a wonder…

He wouldn’t so much pass judgement on a book as he would bring it to you, the reader, like it was an overflowing bucket of water sloshing around in his arms. Just lists, lists, lists of all the things that were in the book, like this, from this month’s review of A Mercy, by his longtime favorite Toni Morrison:

Mother love: always an absolute in Morrison’s fiction, a terrible swift sword. Ancestors: a religion of owls and the African slave trade. The Middle Passage: commodities trading and shark bait. The world of work: caulking and tanneries, milking and manure, squash and chickens. Tables of food: wild plums, pecans, suet pudding, baskets of strawberries, haunches of venison, roast swan. Out-of-doors: "trees taller than a cathedral," "birds bigger than cows," "a sky vulgar with stars," "boneless bears in the valley," blood on the snow. The whiplash lyricism: widows and raisins, mugwort and periwinkle, pine sap and cornhusk dolls, "the horror of color, the roar of soundlessness and the menace of familiar objects lying still."

And then, only once he and you were completely soaked with the overwhelming stuff of the book, would he dash of a sentence or two, compressing the book’s meaning and success into an incontestable epigram.

Read Meghan O’Rourke’s fairly recent appreciation of Leonard in the Columbia Journalism Review — it’s called “The Enthusiast,” and it describes the kind of critic you’d surely already know he was, a guy who cared about what he read because he read so much of it, and wanted to be equal to his subjects and eloquent in his pronouncements, the kind of fearsomely educated, constantly engaged critic that our culture is in danger of rendering extinct. He was my absolute favorite and now he’s gone, fuck fuck fuck.

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