The National Book Critics Circle just named an award in honor of the critic John Leonard. Leonard is a favorite of ours, and not only because he once described himself as having a “750-word mind.” That’s a little more than 2paragraphs, but we like to think he’d understand our aims. Here’s the first 2paragraphs of his collected works:
In 1947, a young American and a middle-aged Japanese climbed a tower in Tokyo to look at the bombed temple and the burned-out plain of the Asakusa. The twenty-three-year-old American, in U.S. Army PX jacket, was the critic Donald Richie. The forty-eight-year-old Japanese, wearing a kimono and a fedora, was the novelist Kawabata. Kawabata spoke no English; Richie, no Japanese, and their interpreter stayed home, sick in bed with a cold. And so they talked in writers. That is, Richie said, “André Gide.” Kawabata thought about it, then replied, “Thomas Mann.” They both grinned. And they’d go on grinning the rest of the afternoon, trading names like Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stefan Zweig; Colette and Proust.
It’s a lovely story, isn’t it? Two men on a tower, after a war, waving the names of writers as if they were signal flags or semaphores…I take it personally. It seems to me that my whole life I’ve been standing on some tower or a pillbox or a trampoline, waving the names of writers, as if we needed rescue. And the first person I had to rescue was myself. Back in 1947, I was in California instead of Japan. I would spend the next ten years of my latchkey boyhood in and out of grammar school, junior high, and high school, in the middle of the toadlike politics of the Joe McCarthy era of American history, growing up on a beach. On this beach, nobody understood me. My scars glowed in the dark, or at least my acne. I couldn’t tan, hated cars, refused to surf, and flunked volleyball, grunion-hunting, and puberty rite. Like lonely kids everywhere, I entered into books as if into a conspiracy – for company, of course, and for narrative and romance and advice on how to be decent and brave and sexy. But also for transcendence, a zap to the synaptic cleft; for a slice of the strange, the shock of an Other, a witness not yet heard from, archeologies forgotten, ignored, or despised; that radioactive glow of genius in the dark: grace notes, ghosts, and gods. It’s an old story, and I won’t kid you: I became an intellectual because I couldn’t get a date. But we enter the chambered nautilus of metaphor, and suddenly we hear a different music. As the young brat Jean-Paul Sartre observed, 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.” I don’t know what he’d make of us today, crouched at our software consoles, slugabed in our romper rooms, tethered to the all-news War Porn channel, flatlined by the adman/music-video consumer grid, home-shopping for friendship in the beer commercials, reading a Heavy Metal comic, sampling on a CD carousel a customized sequence of Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, and Tom Petty’s “Jamming Me,” online and downlinked to all the other ghosts in our machines, longing for some digitized Xanadu: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
– John Leonard