Discussed in this review: Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 240 pages. Buy at FSG Books and Amazon.
Literary criticism is nothing new, although there’s been a rise in popular nonfiction books that defend why reading literature matters. It’s as if publishers and critics are afraid they’ve lost relevance in recent decades and need to reclaim a stake in the cultural conversation. As an avid reader, I love to read one person’s smart perspective on a book. It’s why I read book reviews, litblogs, and magazine critics, and it’s why I write.
Wendy Lesser’s latest book, Why I Read, is such a book. It asks one simple question: why read? More specifically, the book asks: what draws most people to read certain types of books? Lesser doesn’t answer these questions, and that’s not the goal of the book. Instead, she presents her own thoughts on what draws her to certain types of books. And the subtitle of this book explains why such a book exists: readers take pleasure in books, and they take such pleasures seriously. It’s not another pastime or hobby for most readers.
Why I Read is Lesser’s attempt to explain why reading literature matters. She doesn’t try to prescribe proper ways to read or force one critical lens on books of a certain era. She says in the book’s prologue, “I ask myself why I read literature…I am asking what I get from it: what delights I have received over the years, what rewards I can expect to glean. This I am sure of.” Lesser follows this line of thinking throughout the book, making it clear that why she reads might not be why you read. Reading, she says, “can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are.” Thus, Lesser knows her experiences and what she chooses to read won’t appeal to everyone.
Don’t expect answers to why, or even what, you should read. That’s not Lesser’s main purpose in this book. You may not agree with all of her examples of what makes a good read, either. For example, Lesser favors 19th century novelists like Henry James and Fyodor Dostoyevsky over novelists like Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, although she mentions Dickens and Doyle on occasion. She writes about books like Moby Dick by Herman Melville and By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, but doesn’t spend much time analyzing them. She also picks and chooses genres worthy of discussion, favoring mystery novels over sci-fi and fantasy (although she spends some time exploring Isaac Asimov’s novels). Halfway through the book, it becomes clear she’s attempting to explore reading on broad terms. Unfortunately, this broad overview of why reading matters isn’t always effective.
Lesser is an astute critic. She goes deep into analyzing the books she uses as examples. If you haven’t read the same books Lesser’s read, you may find yourself skimming those sections. For example, she relies on a lot of Dostoyevsky’s work to provide examples, so if you haven’t read much Russian literature, you’ll end up skipping whole sections of the book. I had to look up some of the books she mentions and often got lost as she got into the weeds of the story lines and characters of individual books. This is one of the book’s flaws: by trying to cover such a broad topic with specific works of literature, Lesser isolates readers who haven’t read most of the books she has. If you’re a James or Dostoyevsky scholar, you’ll fit right in. Of Dostoyevsky’s work, I’ve only read Notes From Underground, and of course, she doesn’t refer to that book much. Of James’s work, I’ve read The Portrait of A Lady and The Turn of the Screw, but Lesser focuses on The Golden Bowl. The result is that I felt lost throughout most of the book, having a vague familiarity with the authors she discusses, but not much of an interest in the analysis of certain works.
Why I Read is an attempt to make literary criticism palatable to the masses. In this way, the book is similar to How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. In that book, Foster explains the basic tenets of close reading and literary study. Lesser does something similar, except she focuses on what makes a work of literature resonate with readers. There are reasons why certain literary works last for more than a generation, she says through her analyses. Lesser moves from one literary element to another to show us why certain works are better than others. In the chapter “Character and Plot,” for example, Lesser claims that between character and plot, “character is always at the forefront.” In the chapter titled “The Space Between,” she says that the “I” of the nonfiction essay has to strike a balance between the known and unknown:
But the balancing act required of [a nonfiction author] is a delicate one, for the suspicions can’t be so strong as to undercut our dependence. We need to recognize doubt, but then we must somehow be encouraged to take the leap of faith that gets us to the other side of this chasm. If we end up in the abyss, the nonfiction writer has failed…He needs to get us across, but with full foreknowledge of the dangers involved. It is both a trick and not a trick.
Here Lesser claims it is tougher to write nonfiction well; the writer has less control over the work. This might be why fictional stories last longer than nonfiction. Lesser claims there’s more authority and authenticity in fiction because of this reason.
Even though I write about books and how I experience reading them, I find it difficult to explain what it feels like when I finish an excellent book. At times, Lesser explains her experiences well, and I commend her for that. At other times, she relies on truisms about reading books. Perhaps this is a problem with the form itself. Here, for example, is how she describes why she loves reading Henry James:
Reading Henry James, who died thirty-six years before I was born (only thirty-six, I am amazed to realize, given that I once considered it another era — but he and I are growing closer and closer as I grow older and he stands still), I hear a voice that continues to speak its mind to me, making jokes I still find funny and psychological observations I still assent to.
I understand her points on James, but I also wonder if this description — “a voice that continues to speak its mind to me” — applies to any writer we learn to love. From my experience, you have to learn to love Henry James’s work. In order for Lesser to explain her love of James without gushing, she has to resort to generic descriptions of why he’s had such an impact on her.
As I write this review, I realize how difficult it is to describe the books that have made an impact on my life, and I imagine Lesser faced the same issues while writing Why I Read. I imagine many readers will read this book hoping to gain some insight into why anyone reads, or why someone should read a book in the first place. This isn’t the book to read if you want to learn how or why to read. I didn’t learn much new about how I read, but I did learn a lot about Lesser’s reading preferences. That’s not a knock, but I do suspect many readers will be disappointed with this book, expecting it to be a “how to” about reading when it isn’t.
Neither is it a memoir in books. Those do exist, though. If you’re looking for a narrative memoir about reading, seek out a book like How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields or Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Again, Why I Read has value, but its value lies somewhere between academic literary criticism and guidebook on what you should (or shouldn’t) read.
There’s still a lot of value in Why I Read. I was dazzled by the chapter, “Elsewhere,” in which Lesser explores the role of translation in literature, among other things that influence our reading. Specifically, she compares translated versions of Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, preferring the version translated by Alfred Birnbaum to a version translated by Jay Rubin. The differences between the two changed the way she read the novel, and although they were similar, Birnbaum’s translation resonated with her more than Rubin’s. This is something we often overlook as readers, especially if we read authors like Murakami. Lesser reveals how attuned careful readers are to the musicality of language. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t work, it’s obvious why.
Should you read Why I Read? It depends. I recommend it if you enjoy literary criticism and analysis but don’t want to read an academic book. I don’t recommend it if you enjoy memoirs, particularly those memoirs that tell a story through books and reading. If you read at all, you’ll find something to love in Why I Read, although you may get tired of her analysis of particular books. Also, if you’re looking to broaden your reading list, check out this book. At the end, Lesser provides a list of books she recommends, and you can see she reads broadly and with care.
Why I Read will appeal to people who understand the pleasures of reading. It’s a pleasure that Lesser expresses in myriad ways. By reading this book, you might re-discover why certain books appeal to you more than others, and I think that’s what Lesser intended to do with this book. In this way, Why I Read accomplishes what it set out to do.