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Bookmark: Essay collections show diversity, creativity

January 19, 2012|By Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune

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."

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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.

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