The title “Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books” declares a purpose that Wendy Lesser with her first sentence immediately subverts : “It’s not a question I can completely answer.” But why the internal debate? “There are abundant reasons . . . ,” Lesser tells us, “many of them mutually contradictory . . . My motives remain obscure to me because reading is, to a certain extent, a compulsion . . . its sources prefer to remain hidden.”
What follows is not about unearthing the hidden or banishing obscurity; as Lesser reminds us, “when it comes to literature, we are all groping in the dark, even the writer.” The founder and editor of The Threepenny Review and a distinguished cultural and literary critic with eight previous books of nonfiction and one novel to her credit, Lesser has carved out a unique and admirable career as a public woman of letters with no academic affiliation. Fittingly, then, “Why I Read” is no lofty tome or arid treatise. It’s a supple exploration of “certain questions that [Lesser has] long been curious about,” a witty, wise, and buoyant book full of the sense of adventure and the capacity for surprise that Lesser values in literature itself.
With “no topics that absolutely had to be covered . . . no essential facts” to marshal, “Why I Read” is free to explore the “delights” and “rewards” of reading. “Open-endedness” rather than categorization governs the book’s structure. Ostensibly discrete chapters on subjects like “Character and Plot,” “Authority,” and “Elsewhere” (which ranges from translation and its discontents to science fiction) are also complexly imbricated.
Works and authors recur (Lesser has a special fondness for Dostoyevsky, Henry James, and Patricia Highsmith) and the relationship between apparently very different topics is carefully teased out. How authors generate and maintain suspense, establish their authority, reveal truth; how readers respond to translators (I especially loved a hilarious bit about Lesser’s stubborn allegiance to an early translator of Haruki Murakami); what makes for great satire; the nature of “literary innovation” — Lesser explores them all with passion and panache. A radically democratic critic, Lesser is equally at home riffing on the stylistic ambitions of “Don Quixote” as she is pondering the mystery of why Scandinavian mysteries are “on average, so much better than anyone else’s.” “[Q]uality,” she maintains, “is not hierarchical. Judgments can always be made at any level.”
Lesser’s judgments are well-considered and flexible. As soon as she makes “tentative conclusions” or provisional claims, she notes their limitations: “having written [a] sentence [on literary authority], I can immediately think of three or four exceptions to it”; Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” “breaks wide open my distinction between grandeur and intimacy.” She allows for her own bias and prejudice; when discussing the Russian-Jewish writer Der Nister, she notes: “Perhaps my perspective is distorted by the fact that I am a secular Jew myself, so you may want to discount my notion accordingly.” Lesser is so subtle, so precise, so astute in her thinking that there were not many of her notions I wished to discount.
One of Lesser’s most notable achievements is that she forswears certainty while never falling into relativism or causing us to lose faith in her authority. Even as she reminds us of the variety of taste, her own judgments have power and allure. Her honesty and lack of pretentiousness (she cheerfully admits that she’s never read Proust in French and confesses that Joyce’s “Ulysses” “has always gotten on [her] nerves” endear her to us. She is at once an extremely modest and an extremely charismatic critic, and it is just this bewitching mix of charming humility and confident pronouncement that allows us to trust her. Lesser’s criticism is unabashedly personal, her tastes unapologetically idiosyncratic, but because she frankly acknowledges the diversity of viewpoints and is at the same time such a strong and smart advocate for her own favorites, her criticism achieves a rare force and universality.
The book’s final chapter, “Inconclusions,” fittingly doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy package. “Reading is not about progressing toward a finish line, any more than life is,” Lesser gently admonishes us, and leaves us with a list of “a hundred books to read for pleasure.” We finish reading Lesser enlarged by the delights and rewards of her prose, enriched by her insights, and with an expansive sense of possibility.Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’