KR BlogBlog

Infinite Book

            If you’re lucky you’ve been ushered into reading by someone at some point. If you love books at all, there’s a very very good chance that someone has helped you love them—someone who opened them up or demystified them, something. If the person who taught you that is still alive, write to that person and thank her or him.

Frustratingly, sadly, John Leonard’s one of the three folks who taught me how to get into books, and he’s left no forwarding address, and he’s gone. This latest release, Reading For My Life, is likely the last we’ll ever get, and so we’ll have to take what thin and tiny comfort we can from what this final overview book offers (along with, of course, the collections that were released, gorgeously, in his time by the New Press, each of which well worth your time and book-criticism dollars).

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way: you should buy this book and have it in your life in exactly the same way you should have the Everyman edition of Orwell and Didion, in the same way you should have at least one collection of Charles Wright’s poetry. Buy the book. This is a book-review-slash-consideration, and the first part of that, the book review part, is comically easy: this book’s fantastic. John Leonard read—well, look at the title. That’s not irony: whatever else his life was, wherever and with whomever else he lived it, it splashed full and vivid on the page as he worked his kind, cautious, interested, invested way through all those books.

Regardless of whether one buys the book, however, the critical thing to come in contact with, through Leonard, is something about the seriousness with which one can read and engage with books—and, after reading enough Leonard, one’s tempted to revise that last bit of the last sentence to the seriousness with which one should read and engage.

Here’s Leonard on Richard Nixon’s Six Crises—a review which was published in 1962: “Switch me off now if you were expecting a few pious remarks about the tragic collapse of Dick Nixon, or a long swoon of meditation on the loneliness of this misunderstood and pitiable man, or a tennis-court slap on the back for the little man who almost made it. I read and review his book because I am fascinated by the flower of rot, and because I think that more interesting and instructive than Richard Nixon the success is Richard Nixon the failure. I think that more meaningful than the man of tricks is the man of tricks reduced to desperation.” (emphasis all mine). In Leonard’s “Dear Bill (on the Occasion of His Inauguration),” he writes, barely into the second paragraph, “I’d like you to listen to the dispossessed. The world is full of them—Haitians, Palestinians, Muslims in Bosnia, Turks in reunited Germany, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in obdurate Myanmar, old dry bones of high-school-principals cannibalized by Red Guards in the Guangxi province of China, everybody on the Indian subcontinent and, especially, Salman Rushdie, a Flying Dutchman astronaut of all our fevers—but we know you’ve got the Justice Department to fix up first off, and then health care, and after that (who knows?) maybe campaign financing so that the greedhead lobbyists won’t disembowel every other program you proprose.” That’s one sentence, folks, but I’m not interested in flashing lights at Leonard’s grammatical flair and glory (to say absolutely nothing of Leonard’s general brilliance—dude seemed to know everything). Also: sure, Leonard wrote lots on overtly political stuff, but his most breath-taking writing’s on those novelists he’s just endlessly in love with—Morrison, namely, though also Oz and Grossman and Marquez and Powers, and DeLillo (I’ve got to just say this, too: this book’s great, but, if you’re gonna get it, also get a copy of Leonard’s Lonesome Rangers—that one’s some major magic).

The thing that makes Leonard’s books such infinite things is how deeply he believed in literature—believed in it the way one believes in telling one’s spouse one loves him or her on leaving the house, or how one believes in voting—believes that these are Fundamental Goods, things we’re all better for taking part in. He believed writing should wrestle with the biggest, thorniest aspects of life, and he believed that good art demanded full-blooded engagement, and in every damn last thing I’ve read by the man (and I’ve read every last thing other than his earliest novel), he’s there, fully alive, 100% ready to take part in whatever the work’s asking of the reader.

And as much as anything else, that’s what’s so magic about this book, and about the lessons Leonard’s writing offers even after he’s gone: the reader has a job, and no book’s merely the product of an author—or, fine, it’s a product, but it’s inert, lifeless until awakened by the reader’s consciousness. Note the title of this book—Reading For My Life. I’ll bet $100 against anyone willing that Wood’s or Kakutani’s selected writings wouldn’t feature Reading as the book’s verb, and I’ll keep the rest of that snarky speculation to myself, but dig the humility in the title, the fact that he needed these magicians and mystics to make their art so that he could live. It’s a powerful clarion, and the reason John Leonard’s writing will always be sustaining, always be work I can’t shake or escape: he’s the best public example I know of regarding how to approach writing. If you haven’t gotten into Leonard yet, you can’t even imagine my jealousy, and if you have, it’s probably about time to read him again, isn’t it?