Sentences — November 7, 2008, 7:56 pm

Weekend Read: “He is in angry mourning for the millions of books gone forever”

As readers learned yesterday, eminent critic and longtime friend of Harper’s Magazine John Leonard died Wednesday. His most recent bio in the New York Review of Books described him this way: “John Leonard writes on books every month for Harper’s and on television every week for New York magazine.” Those “every”s would guarantee mediocrity in almost any writer, but not Leonard. Across five decades, he wrote voluminously and with excellence on deadline, and his reviews–whether of television or film or books–were always polished, insightful, playful. The first of his criticism I encountered was on CBS’s Sunday Morning in the Eighties, a spoken review of Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach. After watching this distinguished, silver-haired man enthuse about Stone’s novel, I went out that afternoon to our neighborhood bookstore and bought the book. Leonard made one want to read, straight away, what he described.

This weekend, I propose you spend some time with three reviews by Leonard. The first is an essay for The New York Review of Books on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s a moving piece, and also contains this paragraph that shows how thoroughly Leonard knew, and how effortlessly he could account with, the occupations of entire careers:

Didion has always juxtaposed the hardware and the soft: hummingbirds and the FBI; nightmares of infant death and the light at dawn for a Pacific bomb test; disposable needles in a Snoopy wastebasket and the cost of a visa to leave Phnom Penh; four-year-olds in burning cars, rattlesnakes in playpens; earthquakes, tidal waves, Patty Hearst. Against the “hydraulic imagery” of the clandestine world, its conduits and pipelines and diversions, she opposes a gravitational imagery of black holes and weightlessness. Against dummy corporations, phantom payrolls, rocket launchers, and fragmentation mines, she opposes wild orchids washed by rain into a milky ditch of waste. Half of her last novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, was depositions, cable traffic, brokered accounts, and classified secrets. The other half was jasmine, jacaranda petals, twilight, vertigo.

Leonard could also reproach. In the New York Times Book Review (which he edited superbly during the 1970s, making regular reviewers of Guy Davenport and Leonard Michaels) he took to task a critic who’d taken to taking meanly and emptily at writers:

Think of it: with a whole world of worthy targets–Rupert Murdoch, Michael Eisner, Donald Trump, Conrad Black, Eli Manning, Shell Oil, Clear Channel, Condé Nast–he mugs a man who has spent the last quarter of a century staying poor by reviewing other people’s books, who has read more widely, warmly and deeply than the vampire bat fastened to his carotid, who should be commended rather than ridiculed for a willingness to take on a review of a new translation of Mandelstam’s journals, and who, even though he wrote a regrettably mixed review of a book of mine in these pages, deserves far better from the community of letters, if there is one, than Peck’s bumptious heehaw: “With friends like this, literature needs an enema.”

For Harper’s, Leonard mastered the form that Guy Davenport had made seem inimitable, the short essay that could cover a range of seemingly heterogeneous New Books and make of them a single, insightful whole. There are seventy-one of Leonard’s monthly columns freely available to you, but his editor at Harper’s for the past six years suggests you begin with his September 2008 column. What Leonard wrote of the last Michael Chabon novel applies equally to what he wrote below: “it works so well we want it to go on forever.”


New Books, September 2008

By John Leonard

Fire, water, gas, heat, dust, negligence, ignorance, malice, collectors, book sellers, book worms, insects, children, and servants”—these, according to William Blades in Enemies of Books (1880), are the agents most responsible for the deterioration, disappearance, and/or destruction of individual volumes and of entire libraries. He was addressing, of course, such realms of contingency and inadvertence as bad luck, lousy weather, human error, and stuff happens. So he omitted to mention soldiers, pols, priests, mullahs, reactionaries, revolutionaries, enraged mobs, grand inquisitors, holy crusaders, and ethnic cleansers. Fernando Báez, the Venezuelan writer who has previously published vivid accounts of The History of the Ancient Library of Alexandria and The Cultural Destruction of Iraq, is much more ferocious in a universal history of the destruction of books (Atlas, $25). He is in angry mourning for the millions of books gone forever since the clay tablets of Sumer, the bamboo strips of Confucian China, the stones, skins, bronze plates, whittled bones, papyri, and codices, lacquered with memory, etched with thought, consumed by flames: from the Avesta in Persepolis, the forbidden knowledge of The Book of Thoth, Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, and nine volumes of poems by Sappho, to the Gnostic Gospels rotting in a desert cave, the Natural History of the Indies lost in the ashes of El Escorial, Richard Burton’s translation from the erotic Arabic of The Scented Garden, and all those Torahs and Korans burned and drowned. Báez quotes Jorge Luis Borges, the blind librarian:

After the garden was leveled, the chalices and altars profaned, the Huns rode their horses into the monastery library and destroyed the incomprehensible books and vituperated them and burned them, perhaps fearing that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, who was an iron scimitar.

(Continued…)

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