Yardley sits on the broad gray porch of his bright yellow house; he is a spare, russet being against the dull green background of a corn plant and the lighter green leaves of bamboo ascending like strange feathers above his head. He's in shorts and a black tee shirt. He's a man with not an inch of spare flesh on him, with thin, sinewy arms and legs. (No doubt the payoff for all that power-walking.) His hair, what remains of it, is brownish-red, the same color as the freckles that spatter his pate. He talks eagerly, with surprising lack of care for syntax, the construction of his sentences, almost as if oral expression is secondary to him.
He is 57 now and expects to work at The Post, doing what he is doing now -- writing about books, reviewing them, recommending or dismissing them -- until he's 70. Then, he says, he will give up reading books with intent and purpose, taking notes, looking for ideas for his Monday column, and turn to them for the pleasure they give.
This is not what Americans are adept at, he agrees, driven as they are by utilitarian purposes in virtually all things, a people for whom something must be gotten from pleasure besides pleasure. Something useful. "Yes, the idea of pleasure as in some way remunerative in itself is lacking," he says. "I have argued for years that the immense popularity of James Michener is pertinent to that. That people seem to read his novels because they feel they are learning something from them."
"That has to be the reason," he concludes. "I can see no other reason why anyone would read a Michener novel."
There is no evidence of snobbism or condescension in his assigning Michener to the circle of the middlebrows. None at all. Yardley's just doing his job, which is to point the way to the better books, the higher thoughts, and hope some few among his readers will head off in that direction.
He contemplates the audience for his reviews and his columns on books and the book business. This is not a country where books and authors are held in great esteem, at least not to the degree they are in countries like England, France, maybe even Russia. Americans make themselves too busy for the work of reading literature; they are a profit-oriented people above all things, and many are uncontemplative strangers to the interior landscapes of their lives.
"When I was growing up, a few American writers had some considerable stature -- Hemingway, Faulkner," he said. "They would appear on the cover of Time."
A great many people knew who they were.
"That is not happening now."
And he adds, as if speaking with the resonant sadness of the last literate man on the eve of a dark age: "There is no American writer of serious fiction who can be said to be a famous person."
Yardley's career in journalism has been played out almost entirely on the "think" sections of newspapers: features, books, editorials. These are not, as many outsiders might think, the more eminent domains of newspapering, as they are far removed from the nuclear motor of the business -- the news, the gathering and processing of it. He has been reviewing books for more than 30 years, full time since 1978, when he came to The Washington Star to do just that, only to see it fold. His Pulitzer for criticism that year, he believes, helped him land his current job on The Post.
He has been lucky, as well as the beneficiary of interventions by persons of consequence. He began, as most do, with small jobs -- but at crucial junctures. Straight out of the University of North Carolina, where he edited the school paper, he was taken on as James Reston's intern in The New York Times' Washington bureau. Next came a stepping-stone spot on the Times' Week in Review section. He went to the Greensboro Daily News, in North Carolina, as an editorial writer, at a callow 24. There he began reviewing books on the side, not only for his own paper, but also for national journals like The New Republic and The New York Times Book Review. He won a Neiman fellowship at Harvard, eventually made it to the Star, via the Miami Herald, and then the Post.
His personal life seems to have been conventional and appropriate to his times and his class. He was born in Pittsburgh; his parents were teachers. He has had two wives; he has two grown sons: Both are in journalism. He is a family man who is obviously successful, apparently satisfied. Is he deeply happy? This is impossible to know, for reasons Yardley offers himself in the opening sentence of his work on Exley: "Biography is a vain and foolhardy undertaking. Its essential conceit, that the unimaginable distance between two human beings can be crossed, is unsupportable; each of us is inherently unknowable."