John Leonard, with whom I became acquainted through his New Books column in Harper's, died from lung cancer last night at the age of 69. I often had trouble reading his columns because his sentences twisted and turned with long lists and casual references to a staggering variety of things about which I knew nothing: foreign cultures, detailed histories, obscure and well-known writers, complicated philosophies reduced to a phrase, systems of thought, anything and everything. The New York Times' obituary quotes Kurt Vonnegut on reading Leonard: "When I start to read John Leonard, it is as though I, while simply looking for the men's room, blundered into a lecture by the smartest man who ever lived." This description is hard to improve on.
Harper's has made everything he wrote for them freely available on their website.
John Leonard was a fierce liberal, and not just politically. His reviews were always generous and almost devoid of judgment. He supported Obama and, unlike his friend Studs Terkel, lived long enough to cast his vote, though he had to bring a chair to sit on while he waited in line. I hope he was able to appreciate Obama's victory as well.