Why I Read, by Wendy Lesser, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp.

Why I Read

Literary magazine editor Wendy Lesser leads readers through what feels like a book club discussion on steroids – brainy, personal, and occasionally off topic.

Reading Wendy Lesser is like attending a book club where the leader is an Olympic champion reader. Think the Dana Torres of page-turning. She seems to have read, and then re-read, everything. She views the world through the words of Milton, Austen, Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare. Lesser recently re-read Henry James’s intricate classic "Wings of the Dove" on her iPhone while commuting. She has opinions about not only the complete works of Proust – which she’s read and re-read – but also the different translations.

And in her Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, Lesser tackles a deceptively simple question: Why does one read?

The question might be impossible to answer, but it’s a pleasure to explore. To navigate her way, Lesser makes the question personal and conversational. Conversation, in fact, is explicitly what she’s aiming for. By deconstructing the elements of good fiction – and also genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, theater, and even television – Lesser leads readers through something like a book club discussion on steroids. And, just like your favorite book club, the discussion is brainy, it’s personal, and it’s occasionally off topic.

So: Why does Lesser read? First, Lesser acknowledges that when it comes to deconstructing the elements of great books there will be no simple laundry lists. She does, however, roll up her sleeves and throw down some specifics. To begin with, there’s plot and character. In a chapter that explores Milton, James, and Hilary Mantel, Lesser explains that who fictional characters are is indistinguishable from what they do. In other words, plot shapes character. Also on the list is authority – here we discuss Shakespeare and the authenticity of a writer’s voice; novelty, or the role of innovation in literary art; grandeur, and intimacy.

A chapter titled “The Space Between” provides philosophical insights on the boundaries crossed through reading, including boundaries between the reader and the author, through time and space.

This is putting a finger on one of the most powerful aspects of art. “Reading literature” Lesser writes, “is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different.”

What Lesser isn’t attempting here is revising the canon. She’s not taking on F.R. Leavis and his Great Tradition. Rather, she confines this conversation to an explication of her personal favorites.

Because her tastes are wide ranging, for the most part this works. But it also invites disappointment. If this is a book club, you might want a say in choosing the book. And when Lesser’s tastes run to the classics, the book makes sense. When her tastes run to genre fiction, it feels random. The discussion is best when Lesser touches on her biggest inspirations – Dostoevsky, Swift, Shakespeare, Milton, James, and Proust. Emboldened by Lesser’s iPhone reading, I downloaded a favorite James novel, the free iPad version, as well as dusting off a rather under-used James biography from my actual bookshelf.

But Lesser also has a preference for mystery writing, so unless you’re a big fan of Scandinavian mysteries (and there’s every reason to be), you may find yourself wishing she’d discuss writing that has a stronger cultural impact. It’d be great to hear Lesser’s take on ultra-successful contemporary writers like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, or Dave Eggers. And if we’re being random, wouldn't it be fun to see her erudition applied to the "50 Shades" phenomenon or Bridget Jones? What does Helen Fielding take from Jane Austen (or for that matter E.L. James from Henry!)? I find myself wanting to put the kettle on and sit down with Lesser to learn more.

This is because, ultimately, Lesser is a reader’s reader. As the founder and editor of the literary magazine The Threepenny Review, Lesser has spent years as a gatekeeper and publisher for new writing. But, surprisingly, she doesn’t come across as a writer’s reader. Lesser seems hot for page-turners and surprisingly tepid for innovation. James Joyce, for instance, is “nearly unreadable” and “self-promotional.” The stylization of "Ulysses" that may have created a turning point for the modern novel, she says, “has always gotten on my nerves.”

One attribute Lesser ventures to attach to all great literature is the obscure quality of “the truth," and she repeatedly returns to this theme. This is baffling. Sure, we look to the best in art to illuminate unexplored elements of the human experience, to get at what’s real. But the truth as a destination seems rather abstract. It even comes across as a bit fuddy-duddy and overly moralistic to attempt it. Thinking of so many American writers – from Thoreau and Whitman to Lesser’s favorite James, that master of the psychological charade – it seems problematic to assign them righteous motives.

Lesser, in her prologue, is the first to say that the idea of truth is elusive and that she’s focused here on conversation, not clarity.

“The point,” Lesser writes, “is to make a stab at it.”

“In the never-ending conversation about what might count as good literature,” continues Lesser, “there are many worse things than being wrong.”

And that, for Lesser, is the last word.

Janet Saidi is a public-radio producer and professor at KBIA Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why I Read
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today