Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Morning Reading: "We are reading for our lives"

From Critical Mass I learned of the passing of John Leonard whose reviews have taught me much over the years. They reprinted his remarks from two years ago when he was won the NBCC Sandrof award for lifetime achievement. Here they are:

"My whole life I have been waving the names of writers, as if we needed rescue. From these writers, for almost 50 years, I have received narrative, witness, companionship, sanctuary, shock, and steely strangeness; good advice, bad news, deep chords, hurtful discrepancy, and amazing grace. At an average of five books a week, not counting all those sighed at and nibbled on before they go to the Strand, I will read 13,000. Then I'm dead. Thirteen thousand in a lifetime, about as many as there are new ones published every MONTH in this country.

"It's not enough, and yet rich to excess. The books we love, love us back. In gratitude, we should promise not to cheat on them -- not to pretend we're better than they are; not to use them as target practice, agit-prop, trampolines, photo ops or stalking horses; not to sell out scruple to that scratch-and-sniff info-tainment racket in which we posture in front of experience instead of engaging it, and fidget in our cynical opportunism for an angle, a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of principle, and strike attitudes like matches, to admire our wiseguy profiles in the mirrors of the slicks. We are reading for our lives, not performing like seals for some fresh fish.

"Listen to Jean-Paul Sartre, a young brat, on first entering his grandfather's library: "I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms."

"Then recall Toni Morrison's "Beloved," in which Denver warned her ghostly sister about their difficult mother: "Watch out for her; she can give you dreams."

"And finally remember what Maxine Hong Kingston told a reporter after her house burned down, with all of her manuscripts, in the Oakland, California, fires: 'Did you know that when paper burns,' she said, 'it is very beautiful? It's just amazing to look at a burned book. It looks like feathers, the thin pages, and it's still book shaped, and you touch it and it disintegrates. It makes you realize that it's all air. It's just inspiration and air and it's just returned to that.'

"How magical is THAT realism? Very."

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