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Today marks the release of Reading for My Life, a collection of writings by the critic John Leonard, who authored the New Books column for Harper’s Magazine from 2003 until his death in 2008. The book includes reflections from Leonard on writers as varied as Joan Didion, Richard Nixon, and Salman Rushdie, as well as reflections on Leonard by a similarly distinguished cast. The introduction to the anthology is by E. L. Doctorow, who beautifully encapsulates Leonard’s literary calling: “With his love of language and his faith in its relevance to human salvation, our own inadvertent, secular humanist patron saint.”
Harper’s was fortunate to publish this perspective for decades, starting in the 1970s and carrying through to Leonard’s years as author of New Books, a column he made truly his own. When Leonard passed away, Wyatt Mason assessed some of his finest writing, including his body of work for Harper’s, which is available to everyone here.
Leonard’s long-time Harper’s editor, Jen Szalai, recommended that readers begin with his September 2008 New Books column. He was, she writes in her Reading for My Life tribute, a man “who cared so deeply about reading and writing that it was as much a moral and existential activity as it was an intellectual one.”
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”