By Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune
12:06 AM EST, January 20, 2012
He loved lists, so let's make one in his honor. The late John Leonard was brilliant, witty, earnest, brave, erudite, stubborn, poetic and totally smitten by literature.
I never met him, but I can swear to the foregoing because I read his work for many years and — as I now know — his work reflected his soul. I know that because "Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008" (Viking), a forthcoming collection of Leonard's superb essays and book reviews, includes a portrait of the writer. At the end of the book, others — his wife, his children, authors and colleagues — offer perspectives on his character.
Gloria Steinem writes about "his intelligence and enthusiasm and sense of humor and sense of justice," adding that few who didn't know him personally will ever be able to appreciate "the depth of his kindness." His son writes that Leonard, unlike those petty critics who relish the verbal takedown and adore nothing so much as the writing of a viciously negative review, "loved to exalt, to spread the dazzle."
I didn't absolutely have to know that Leonard was as fine a human being as he was a prose stylist, I suppose, but it's awfully nice to learn, anyway. Just as I was happy to learn from Leonard himself, in one of those essays that sings with his long lists, that he and his family loved "Greek light, German sausage, Russian soul, French sauce, Spanish bull, Zen jokes."
"Reading for My Life" is one of three notable essay collections either here or fast approaching on the horizon, reminding us that essays can be as diverse and creative as novels and poems — sometimes more so — and that criticism is more than just a matter of what one admires or despises. At its best, criticism is a passionate engagement with another imagination. Like a love affair, the relationship has its ups and downs. And the heart most definitely should be involved.
Joining "Reading for My Life" are "Distrust That Particular Flavor" (Putnam), a collection by William Gibson, and "The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc." (Doubleday), by Jonathan Lethem. Gibson and Lethem are wonderful novelists — not only talented and prolific, but also indispensable; each in his own way has redefined the novel in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, embracing pop culture along the way without a trace of condescension.
But is their nonfiction any good? No and yes: Gibson's book is a lackluster disappointment, while Lethem's inspired miscellany is ardent and charming.
Among the problems with "Distrust That Particular Flavor" is Gibson's tone, which is humble and apologetic, occasionally veering into the downright crabby. It ends up making the reader wonder why he released the book at all. Did he owe someone a favor? Was there a gun to his head? "Writing nonfiction," he notes in the introduction, "I've often felt as though I'm applying latex paint to the living room walls with a toothbrush." Reading these thin scraps that pass for essays can be an equally tedious chore.
By contrast, Gibson's novels are terrific and exhilarating. His prose style has always reminded me of Scandinavian furniture: There's nothing fussy, phony or merely decorative about it, only straight lines and sharp corners and coldly beautiful functionality. Each word seems perfect, as if it had been waiting its entire life for the privilege of appearing in a Gibsonian sentence. His claim to fame is having coined the term "cyberspace" in 1981 in an early story, but that's not the half of it. The tall, lanky Gibson is a down-to-earth visionary, and his novels are a bit like his own physiognomy: feet planted firmly on the ground, head in the clouds.
Another issue with "Distrust That Particular Flavor" is the date of the various compositions. Some of these essays were written and published more than a decade ago. Yet they contain cultural pronouncements, and such edicts are only as interesting as the cultural moment they are intending to describe. Nothing goes stale faster than hipness. In an essay titled "Modern Boys and Mobile Girls," Gibson writes, "Japan is the global imagination's default setting for the future." An oddly creaky — and now obsolete — insight from the usually incisive Gibson — until you note that the piece was first published in 2001.
Happily, Lethem's essays are zippy and freewheeling. He actually seems to have enjoyed writing them — especially the magical and revelatory one about his days at Bennington College with fledgling literary stars such as Donna Tartt.
So the advice apropos of this winter roundup of literary nonfiction is as follows: Grab the Leonard, nab the Lethem and skip the Gibson.
And speaking of Leonard, even if you never read him — meaning that you missed out on his advice that to love books "you had merely to trust the tingle in your scalp, a kind of sonar" — you probably heard him. He was the TV critic for "CBS Sunday Morning," and he'd deliver bracingly original essays that revealed just how tepid and shopworn most other TV criticism is.
I remember his review of "Law & Order" in which he said this about the taciturn, by-the-book detectives: "Their wounds glow in the dark." Marvelous. Moreover, what's true of their wounds goes as well for Leonard's words: They glow. And they light the way forward.
JULIA KELLER is the cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.