Being a reader—that is, a reader of actual books—increasingly feels like a marginal, slightly suspect habit. Even though so many wonderful books continue to be published each year, the popular media might have one thinking that one might as well collect marmoset figurines or hoard princess telephones, as to ensconce oneself in books. Our purportedly dwindling lot may take succor in Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read, an engrossing examination of the printed pleasures still to be found between two covers.
In The Amateur, Lesser memorably described herself as “An eighteenth-century man of letters.” She has managed to carve out her life accordingly, earning a Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding the literary magazine The Threepenny Review. Lesser has cultivated a life of observing—she might say devouring—high culture, then writing about it. She divides her time between Berkeley and New York City, where she attends cultural events almost nightly.
Why I Read is deeply personal in its literary selection. Lesser is fond of the Russians, citing them heavily. Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and Kay Boyle feature here as well, while Henry James appears in all his complexity. Lesser has a soft spot for the well-plotted mystery, particularly those penned by Scandinavian writers—Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, and Maj Sjöwall.
One need not share Lesser’s literary preferences to be enamored of Why I Read: that comes from being in the company of a fellow traveler. Lesser begins by admitting her pleasure in reading cannot be fully explained, adding it need not be. Those of us who read passionately are rarely compelled to give an accounting, even when one is demanded. (“Leave me alone. Let me get back to my book.”) Still, she lists a few reasons: passing the time, escape, time-travel, entry into the minds of others, the “pleasure” of the indulgence.
Indeed, Lesser draws upon a lifetime of reading to discuss the peculiar aspects that make reading uniquely pleasurable: character and plot, grandeur and intimacy, novelty, authority. As for the presence of the mysteries and crime thrillers, Lesser offers an elegant defense, arguing “There are certain things that thrillers can do better than serious novels.”
Politics, the world of international business dealings, violence, murders—all work better in crime books and thrillers, because our expectations of these novels (and their authors) is far different than the deeply internalized psychological novel. It is true that readers expect certain behaviors of characters in crime/thriller novels that we do not, say, from a Claire Messud novel or the characters therein.
Why I Read offers numerous bookish bon mots to delight the reader. Take her discussion of the serial novel, books readers generally adore, or in more extreme cases, are driven to near insanity over: “Time after time, having finished the marvelous first novel in a series… I have rushed out to the second and third volumes to gobble up more about the characters, only to find myself disappointed.”
And so it is that Lesser—and those of us who fall deeply into books—become so enamored of characters that they become rather like actual people to us. Lesser categorizes people by Dickensian personality types. She happily devoted a summer reading Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts; her time was spent with the characters.
When a close friend left a dinner party at Lesser’s home early, explaining she need to return to her book, Lesser was sympathetic. I once read of an elderly man who, in the dream state between sleep and waking, lay in bed contemplating the Christmas gifts he planned to purchase for Sugar and Sophie of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and The White.
Writing on novelty, Lesser levelly sums up all that is wrong with Postmodernist’s most extreme practitioners:
..his preferred mode of address is sarcasm or heavy irony… he has no interest in accurately representing human behavior, partly because he has no interest in accuracy, and partly because he has very little interest in other people; what concerns him most is the working of his own mind…
I could continue, for the paragraph succinctly states all that is wrong with contemporary literature. As a side note, throughout Why I Read, “she” is the default pronoun; note the above use of “he”.
Another moment comes in Chapter Six: “Elsewhere”, with a wonderful discussion on translators. Either you are the kind of reader who notices translators—in which case you cannot stop noticing them—or you are blissfully not so hyper-aware of them (lucky you). Lesser is the kind who does notice them. She is contentedly reading Haruki Marukami’s works translated by Alfred Birnbaum when The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is published. Translation by Jay Rubin. And Lesser notices. If the ensuing discussion doesn’t make you joyously happy, or at least hugely relieved, you may not be so enamored of Why I Read.
Why I Read closes with a topic that unsettles many readers: paper versus digital. Lesser is surprisingly sanguine. Given the choice, she prefers a paper book, but has availed herself of the conveniences digital offers, moving fluidly between media. She still purchases certain books in their old-fashioned paper format. Lesser never quite comes out and says she fears the day books as physical objects will vanish. In fact, she says, “In my more broad-minded moments, I am willing to acknowledge that there is no inherent difference between reading from a printed page and reading from an electronic device. It just depends what you are used to.”
Lesser concludes with a list entitled “A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure”. You may not agree with her choices, but such lists are inherently interesting—they’re the literary equivalent of staring into another’s intellectual medicine chest.
To be a serious reader in modern society is to be, by and large, lonely. This means when authors like Lesser whisper in your ear, speaking of the joys of the book, they are the dealers, holding your choice intoxicant. I assume I am speaking for more than myself. I can’t be the only person clutching Why I Read on the train to work as if I were palming Valium. There’s a whole world of us, out there, readers of all those wonderful writers.