Jonathan Yardley has been a Washington Post book critic since 1981.
Thirty-three years and four months — a third of a century almost to the minute — are quite enough, thank you. On the second Monday of August 1981, I reported for work in the tiny, semi-subterranean offices of Book World, the Sunday supplement of The Washington Post. Those offices moved all over the building in the years to follow, and indeed Book World itself eventually dissolved into bits and pieces of other sections, but I stayed the course, never missing a day’s work, plugging away book after book after book, to the somewhat numbing total of about 3,000 reviews.
As of the first Sunday of December 2014, I’m out of here. The choice to leave is my own: I am more than ready to retire, as I will explain below. But for me this has been a happy time, and ending it is a sad one. I had wanted to work for The Post from the day I left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in June 1961, and though it took me two full decades to get here it was — for me, at least — worth every minute of the wait.
It was not until near the end of almost 5
If anyone had told me as I began this long career that I would spend most of it as a book reviewer and that I would even write a few books of my own, I would have been astonished. I had been editor of my college’s daily newspaper, had thoroughly enjoyed myself and had done a pretty good job, and thought a realistic ambition was to be editor in chief of a daily newspaper in a medium-size city such as Greensboro. But my duties as college editor had included editorial writing as well as editing, and it was in this direction that fate pointed me. It turned out that the editorial department in Greensboro, which I joined in 1964, controlled the paper’s weekly book page, and soon it was added to my other duties. One thing led to another, within a few years I was writing book reviews for newspapers and magazines around the country, and in time I made that the focus of my career.
I came to this task as a journalist, not a literateur, and I have remained one to this day. I have high literary standards and delight in the expression of strong opinion, literary and otherwise, but I also read a book as if I were a reporter: looking for what it is “about” in the deepest sense of the word, determining what matters about it and what doesn’t, trying to give the reader a feel for what it is like as well as passing judgment on it. My gumshoe friends on the reporting staff of the Miami Herald in the mid-1970s used to joke that what I did was “thumbsucking,” but I like to think they understood that I was trying, as they were, to get to the heart of the story.
Beyond doubt my happiest and most fulfilling years have been here at The Post. Like every newspaper with which I have been associated, it regards “soft” news — cultural matters, feature stories, opinion columns, et al. — as something of a stepchild, but the paper’s support of book-review coverage has been admirable, excepting the termination of Book World as a separate section, and there is no point in bemoaning that once again. What matters most to me is that for 3
In the past several years, though, the context in which that conversation takes place has changed radically, change with which I am not really comfortable and with which I do not regard myself as especially competent to deal. Age — I am, to my considerable astonishment, 75 years old — has much to do with it: Having spent more than half a century in newspapers, with occasional side ventures into magazines and books, I probably am too deeply entrenched in yesterday’s journalism to practice today’s as effectively as I’d like. I delight in computers and spend far too much time in front of one, but I do not know how they work or how to take more than minimal advantage of the many opportunities and challenges they offer. I do know, though, that cyberspace is where my fellow journalists will be working into the (very much unknown) future, and that it is time for younger people who know what they’re doing to be at the controls; these include my splendid sons, Jim and Bill, both of whom are reporters for the New York Times.
Furthermore there is the matter of the future of books — and thus of book reviews — in a culture that is evolving as ours is. People constantly ask me about this, as if I knew something, when in truth I know nothing. I have no doubt that books will survive and perhaps even thrive in some form, but as a lover of bound and printed books I am uncomfortable, to say the least, with the rise of e-books, even as I readily acknowledge that they offer exciting new possibilities for transmitting the essential material of books to more readers than traditional books now reach. Still, I love to look at the bookshelves in our apartment and to be reminded by the title of one or another of the pleasures it once gave me and may yet give me again. To the best of my knowledge no one has yet figured out how to offer a similar experience with e-books.
I am an old-fashioned man in a new-fashioned world, which is reason enough to step aside, though, while doing so, to argue for the continuing value and pertinence of much that is old-fashioned, above all the carefully, scrupulously written word. I have loved this job from the first day I assumed it, but I must admit that I find it more workaday than I once did. Reading a book with pencil in hand and notepad at the ready is a useful way to go about the business that I have done these many years, but it is a bit like graduate school: The joys of reading sometimes get lost in the course of duty.
Thus I’m sure you will understand that what I most look forward to in full retirement is reading books for pleasure rather than duty. Whether in our apartment here in the District or our apartment in Lima, Peru, I aim to spend a lot of time with writers whose work I love and to keep on discovering others whom for one reason or another I have not read. I promise to make one last attempt to read “Ulysses,” the gargantuan novel by James Joyce that was admitted to this country by my great-great uncle, federal Judge John Woolsey, whose famous opinion authorizing its admission I regard as considerably more engaging, witty and intelligible than the novel itself; and having fallen in love all too late in life with Henry James of the early and middle periods, I may try “The Golden Bowl” and others of the late period, though it is a daunting prospect.
Mainly, though, I simply aim to revisit writers whose work gives me the kind of delight that only books can give — lots of P.G. Wodehouse and Peter Taylor first and foremost, of course, and Flannery O’Connor, and Ward Just, and Ellen Glasgow, and Raymond Chandler, and Anne Tyler, and John D. MacDonald, and doubtless “The Count of Monte Cristo” for the umpteenth time — all the while keeping in mind that for almost half a century it was my extraordinary good fortune to be paid to do just that, and for most of that time to do it for the readers of The Washington Post.
So, as I learned a couple of centuries ago while struggling to translate Catullus: Ave atque vale. Hail and farewell. It has been a privilege and a joy to write for you, and I will miss you every day.
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