Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

By Wendy Lesser

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Wendy Lesser grew up in California and went on to study at three prestigious universities: Harvard, Cambridge and UC Berkeley and to teach at Princeton and other schools. In 1980, she founded the acclaimed literary magazine The Threepenny  Review, which she edits, and she has published 10 books, including novels, memoirs, biography and literary studies. She also reviews books, dance and music performances and art, and has homes in California and New York.

What is this book about?

Wendy Lesser loves everything about books: the way they feel, their unique scent, their characters, plots, meaning and language. As a longtime editor, author and reviewer, she knows books from all sides and aspects. And in this book, she shares with readers her love for the written word. In the prologue, she writes: “Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it.”  She examines a wide range of writing here: novels, plays, poems, mysteries, sci-fi and memoir.

Why you’ll like it:

“I read to be alone. I read not to be alone,” the author Bich Minh Nguyen writes with Zen-like wisdom in her memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.” Wendy Lesser would understand.  Reading, and responding to what she has read has animated her life. Book lovers and book club members would do well to welcome her as a wise guide to a pastime they treasure, but perhaps have never analyzed. Besides offering insights into the work of many great authors, some familiar and some perhaps new to you, Lesser’s book will help you to understand he unique pleasure of reading.

What others are saying:

“Reading Wendy Lesser is like attending a book club where the leader is an Olympic champion reader.. . . [In] 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 . . . Just like your favorite book club, the discussion is brainy, it’s personal, and it’s occasionally off topic,” says the Christian Science Monitor

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review:  “In this elegantly meandering narrative, critic and editor Lesser. . . , takes us through her expansive reading life. This is not so much a memoir of reading as it is about the craft of literature—the merits of both grandeur and intimacy, the double-edged sword of novelty, the ways character and plot are inextricably linked.  . . . Lesser likens the book to a spiraling conversation exploring what literature can truly offer us, and why we read even when we know the ending, as with Milton’s Paradise Lost.  . . . She investigates the “eerily bridgeable gap between the ‘you’ and the ‘me’ of a literary work” and describes the “terrific, inconsolable hunger” that comes after finishing a great novel. Lesser’s idiosyncratic reading list and her wealth of insights will speak to booklovers of all types.”

“I began Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books with my usual yellow highlighter in hand, notepaper and pen at the ready, opening the reviewer’s copy as I would for any normal assignment. By the time I’d finished, the notepaper was still mostly blank, but the thing in my hand resembled a brightly painted fan—every page saturated in color, with so many corners folded down the book had trouble staying closed . . hers has been a no-holds-barred, art-loving life, and her dedication to that quest irradiates Why I Read,” says The San Francisco Chronicle.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A lover of books reflects on her abiding passion. More than a decade ago, Threepenny Review founder and editor Lesser (Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, 2012, etc.) wrote about the pleasures and insights gained from rereading (Nothing Remains the Same, 2002). Now, in a kind of prequel to that book, the author steps back to ask a broader question: Why read at all? “I am not really asking about motivation,” she admits, but rather about what “delights” and “rewards” she gets. . . . For Lesser, literary characters are more alive than actual people, and she sometimes finds it “hard to keep in mind” that authors “were all living, once.” Literature functions as a “time-travel machine of sorts”: Faulkner has taken her to the South, Dostoevsky to 19th-century Russia, Rohinton Mistry to the slums of Bombay. Her quest to discover why she reads is inseparable from the question of how she reads, which includes noting characterization and plot, as well as the quality of a writer’s voice, authority and empathy. . . . She has read books on an iPad and iPhone but loves the feel, smell–the solidity–of bound pages. She ends her celebration of books with 100 titles, culled through “excruciating excisions and hesitant substitutions.” A gift of pleasure from one reader to another.”

“Lesser’s taste is eclectic, her range large. She offers insights into George Orwell and Henning Mankell, Emily Dickinson and Roberto Bolaño, J.R. Ackerley and Shakespeare, Henry James and Isaac Asimov—to name but a few. There is no claim to a comprehensive approach, nor even a sense that what is discussed is of greater importance that what is not. […] The effect is rather as if Lesser were writing to a friend about the most fabulous literary party of all time, where she’d been in conversation not with authors but with their works. […] Her book is […] thoughtful and intelligent, conversational without being “improving,” and it ultimately encourages us to formulate our own responses, to continue and enlarge the literary conversation,” says author Claire Messud in Bookforum.

When is it available?

You can read “Why I Read” if you pick up a copy at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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