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Editor's Choice

Reading for My Life: Writings 1958-2008 by John Leonard, edited by Sue Leonard with an introduction by E.L. Doctorow; Viking, 381 pages ($35). It should have been twice the size of this volume. And that's only one reason why one can only hope that, as fine as this book is, it's only a provisional attempt at an omnibus collection of one of the great critics of his time, John Leonard, who died at the age of 69 in 2008 after a seemingly tireless half-century of writing about books, television and society (during which he also appeared on "CBS Sunday Morning" and edited the New York Times Book Review in the best years it ever had).

"Reading for My Life" is certainly wonderful in its limited way, with its essays and closing collage of tributes from family members as well as (among others) Jules Feiffer, Gloria Steinem and Toni Morrison (whom Leonard accompanied with others in her posse to pick up her Nobel in Stockholm in 1993).

But its main problem -- beginning immediately with syntactic clunkers in E.L. Doctorow's introduction that Leonard, the editor, might have cured -- is that it was a product of the Leonard family, all of whom seem oddly defensive and unnecessarily modest about work by one of the most joyous and prodigious critics of his time and one of the handful of greatest writers about television America will ever have (of which far too little is here).

The only solution, I think, was not to edit this book as if it were the sort of uncommercial burden publishers sometimes affect but as if it were analogous to a dead poet's final "Complete Poems." The essential joy in reading Leonard is similarly in the sentence and even the phrase as well as the whole, just as with poets and comedians.

Here, unincluded and going back to a 1973 collection, is Leonard on Leslie Fiedler's "Being Busted": "But the better-written and more moving part of 'Being Busted' is that half in which Fiedler examines his own past -- as teacher, writer, ex-Troskyite, Freudian, Easterner, Jew. Six Avocations in Search of an Ambivalence."

-- Jeff Simon