“When I ask myself why I read literature, I am not really asking about motivation. I am asking what I get from it: what delights have I received over the years, what rewards can I expect to glean.”
As the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, and a novelist in her own right, Wendy Lesser has spent a lot of time thinking about what makes literature great, and what draws us to books again and again. In Why I Read, Lesser takes a personal look at what she seeks in fiction, and expects to gain from the experience of reading. Lesser identifies six characteristics including plot and character, the space between, novelty, authority, grandeur and intimacy, and elsewhere that define the many great books she has read over the course of sixty years.
As the personal pronoun in the title makes clear, Why I Read is an entirely a personal work, but one that balances somewhere between literary memoir and literary criticism. Though Lesser discusses many books, this work is entirely without reference to any of the critics, theorists, or philosophers that have gone before her. Thus Lesser’s work isn’t literary criticism in the academic sense, but more a personal theory of how reading works. Her theories come with numerous caveats and addendums, disclaimers and counter examples. Her willingness to discount her own opinions for the sake of seeming humble threatens to undermine their weight with the reader.
Although she focuses mostly on the “Great Books,” Lesser also makes some detours into genre fiction. While Lesser despises the self-consciousness of James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly its desire to innovate, Why I Read is itself a very self-conscious work, if not in the sense of being concerned with novelty. Rather, the self-consciousness is evident when we see Lesser working hard to justify her love of the less reputable genres of mystery and science fiction. Still, this self-consciousness about literary value raises some interesting insights into genre fiction. Pondering the topic of mysteries Lesser writes, “In the best mysteries, there is always a residue—of doubt, of anxiety, of concern about our social welfare. It is this residue which distinguishes rereadable mysteries from the run-of-the-mill one-timers.”
Despite some decent points, overall Lesser’s discussion is more interesting in the particulars than in generalities. Though I ended with a long list of interesting-sounding books to read, titles which Lesser wrote about with eloquence and passion, the connecting pieces left me unmoved. For every sharp-eyed insight, there are many pages of uncertain pondering and equivocating that made this short book feel remarkably long.
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