Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008

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Right up until his death in 2008, John Leonard was a lion in American letters. A passionate, erudite, and wide-ranging critic, he helped shape the landscape of modern literature. He reviewed the most celebrated writers of his age—from Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Didion to Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon. He championed Morrison’s work so ardently that she invited him to travel with her to Stockholm when she accepted her Nobel Prize.  He also contributed many pieces on television, film, politics, and the ...

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Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008

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Overview

Right up until his death in 2008, John Leonard was a lion in American letters. A passionate, erudite, and wide-ranging critic, he helped shape the landscape of modern literature. He reviewed the most celebrated writers of his age—from Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Didion to Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon. He championed Morrison’s work so ardently that she invited him to travel with her to Stockholm when she accepted her Nobel Prize.  He also contributed many pieces on television, film, politics, and the media, which continue to surprise and impress with their fervor and prescience.

Reading for My Life is a monumental collection of Leonard’s most significant writings—spanning five decades—from his earliest columns for the Harvard Crimson  to his final essays for The New York Review of Books. Here are Leonard’s best writings—many never before published in book form—on the cultural touchstones of a generation, each piece a testament to his sharp wit, fierce intelligence, and lasting love of the arts. Definitive reviews of Doris Lessing, Vladimir Nabokov, Maxine Hong Kingston, Tom Wolfe, Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, and Philip Roth, among others, display his passion and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of literature in the second half of the twentieth century. His essay on Ed Sullivan and the evolution of television remains a classic. Throughout Leonard’s reviews and essays is a dedicated political spirit, pleading for social justice, advocating for the women’s movement, and forever calling attention to writers whose work challenged and excited him.

With an introduction by E. L. Doctorow and remembrances by Leonard’s friends, family, and colleagues, including Gloria Steinem and Victor Navasky, Reading for My Life stands as a landmark collection from one of America’s most beloved and influential critics.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
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.
Phillip Lopate
There was more than a touch of the poet in John Leonard, alongside the cheerful investigator. It would be grand to have available a much larger selection of his pieces, either in subsequent volumes or online. Meanwhile, let's be grateful for this eloquent sample of his writings, rescued from the dust of past periodicals.
—The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670023080
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/15/2012
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

John Leonard (1939-2008) was a reviewer or contributing editor for practically every national print outlet, including The Nation, the New York Review of Books, Harper's, Vanity Fair, Salon, and New York, and the daily book reviewer for the New York Times. He also appeared regularly on NPR's Fresh Air and CBS's Sunday Morning. Leonard wrote four novels and served for four years as the executive editor of the New York Times Book Review. In 2006 he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle's prestigious Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

E. L. Doctorow’s novels include The March, City of God, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Billy Bathgate. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Humanities Medal. E. L. Doctorow lives in New York.

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Table of Contents

Introduction E. L. Doctorow xi

Reading for My Life 1

1958 The Cambridge Scene 9

1958 The Demise of Greenwich Village 12

1959 Pasternak's Hero: Man Against the Monoliths 17

1959 Epitaph for the Beat Generation 1

1962 Richard Nixon's Six Crises 24

1969 Doris Lessing's the Four-Gated City 31

1969 Nabokov's Ada 34

1970 Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude 37

1970 Arthur Koestler's Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing 39

1970 Supergirl Meets the Sociologist 42

1976 Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior 45

1978 Edward Said's Orientalism 47

1988 Gay Talese's Thy Neighbor's Wife 50

1981 Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise 57

1987 Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and Jim Sleeper's In Search of New York 60

1988 Don DeLillo's Libra 71

1988 AIDS Is Everywhere 77

1988 On the Beat at Ms 81

1988 Nan Robertson's Getting Better 84

1989 Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses 88

1990 Thomas Pynchon's Vineland 93

1990 Günter Grass: Bad Boys and Fairy Tales 103

1990 Peggy Noonan's What I Saw at the Revolution 118

1990 No Turning Back, Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey, with Jane O'Reilly 120

1991 Philip Roth's Patrimony 122

1991 Milan Kundera's Immortality 124

1991 Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost 134

1992 Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins 147

1993 Dear Bill (on the Occasion of His Inauguration) 168

1994 Meeting David Grossman 171

1995 Eduardo Galeano Walks Some Words 180

1996 Amos Oz in the Desert 183

1997 Family Values, Like the House of Atreus 194

1997 When Studs Listens, Everyone Else Talks 224

1998 Amazing Grace 227

1998 Morrison's Paradise Lost 230

1999 Ralph Ellison, Sort Of (Plus Hemingway and Salinger) 238

2000 Why Socialism Never Happened Here 249

2001 Maureen Howard's Big as Life 256

2001 Bill Ayers's Fugitive Days 262

2001 Blowing His Nose in the Wind 271

2002 Networks of Terror 281

2003 Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing 286

2004 Jacobo Timerman, Renaissance Troublemaker 289

2005 Jonathan Lethem's Men and Cartoons, The Disappointment Artist, and The Fortress of Solitude 293

2006 Citizen Doctorow 305

2007 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (on Václav Havel) 309

2007 The Last Innocent White Man 316

2007 Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union 320

2005 Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking 332

Writing for His Life 347

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