2014-04-14

A Review of Wendy Lesser's "Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books"
—a review by Rachel Belth


Why I Read is a compass pointing to one person's literary north. Or so it seems. It is a highly personalized but authoritative opinion of What Makes Good Literature, an opinion so infectious it seems universal.

Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review and, according to the inside flap of the book, “author of eight previous books of nonfiction and one novel.” As if these credentials do not qualify her as an adequate expert on the subject of books, she has read a sizeable number of books across a variety of genres. She has read many of these books more than once (including but not limited to a translation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in its entirety on three separate occasions).

Everything in the book points to literature, starting with the tone. Lesser’s prose is conversational and easily accessible though not particularly beautiful or memorable. Her style is transparent—it detracts attention from itself.

At first glance, it appears that the excerpts she uses throughout her book serve to illustrate her points, but on closer look, they rather inform her points. This is apparent from the first chapter, titled “Character and Plot.” She begins the chapter explaining the following:

“I had meant to keep these two things separate…Yet they turn out not to be oppositional categories, or even fully separable ones…it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of plot versus character: plot modifies character and character modifies plot, and there can be no meaningful version of one that exists purely without the other.” (11)

That statement is one of her most conventional. In Chapter 2, “The Space Between,” she explains the chasm (emotional, physical) between the reader and the characters of a story, most evident in poetry—she quotes Hopkins, Pound, and Dickenson, among others. This seems like a standard observation, but she closes the chapter explaining that “the very word ‘space’ is doing double duty here, for it points to something that is both there and not there: it is the placeholder that joins us in a sequence…and it is the severance, the emptiness, that keeps us apart” (58). This space and not-space is something all readers have experienced, but perhaps few have understood before.

In her chapter “Authority,” she draws from her experience as a journal editor. Most of the pieces she receives are “quotidian” (98), stories about breakups or parents fighting—things that nearly everyone has experienced—told in such a way that anyone could write it. Others are indulgently fantastic, with a conspicuously high percentage of guns held to faces or about zombies in the mall. She explains that “to have authority, a literary work must be able to turn the quotidian into something strange—as, for instance, Beckett does in his plays, or Kafka in his stories” (99). Later in the chapter, she provides an example of authority from a story she published in The Threepenny Review. Here, the Greats of Kafka and Beckett stand alongside a fledgling unpublished writer, giving those writers hope that perhaps they too can write something great.

In her chapter “Elsewhere,” Lesser discusses translations, not just the fact that they blur the writer’s intended meaning but that she likes some better than others. She compares excerpts from two translations of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Both are perfectly serviceable, but she believes the second is more beautiful. In fact, when she picked up the first translation having read other Murakami works translated by the second, she noticed the tone was off. Either Lesser has a particularly keen ear, or translation plays a defining role in an author’s style.

Such a chapter is evidence that Lesser’s work is not only a commentary on literature but is also distinctly her own opinion. Certain authors and works appear repeatedly throughout the book, specifically Henry James and Dostoevsky (particularly his book Demons), reflecting Lesser’s taste. She expresses an affinity for Scandinavian mysteries: they are, “on average, so much better than anyone else’s” (157).

She is not afraid to dislike acclaimed books, describing James Joyce’s Ulysses as “a novel that has always gotten on my nerves” (78) or saying of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment that the ending was “patently unconvincing” (179). Such a fearless expression of taste, recognizing it as taste and not as fact, encourages readers to become more confident in their own opinions.

This book is not for those who do not enjoy reading but for those who do. The unliterary will likely find her affection for books off-putting and her opinions odd. Why I Read is more than its title suggests—it is not only a profession of love for books. It is a colored lens through which to read, encouraging readers to look at books from a different, though not self-righteous, perspective. It is a compass that, when readers close the book, tells them, “Now go read something.”


____

Rachel Belth is a technical communicator, creative nonfiction writer, and poet with a particular affinity for foreign words and Dostoevsky. She is excited about her impending graduation from Cedarville University when she will receive a Bachelor of Arts in Technical and Professional Communication. She writes by turns from Cedarville, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Some of her work is published or forthcoming in *82 Review and Jewish Literary Journal.

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