A review of Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, by Wendy Lesser

Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books does not advertise itself as one of the recent spate of “save-the-humanities” books, but it fits the bill just the same. A meditation on a lifetime of reading, it’s also an attempt by one professional critic to reengage a distracted public and remind us why literature matters.

Although she is a Ph.D., Lesser has kept her distance from the academy, turned off by the “assaults of gender-based [and]…theory-inspired criticism.” To satisfy her more capacious interests and tastes, she founded the respected literary magazine the Threepenny Review in 1980, and has since styled herself as “an eighteenth-century man of letters,” not a specialist or expert, but a booklover among other booklovers—an amateur (the title of her 1999 literary memoir). As she explained in an interview, “[T]he normal reader out there in the world doesn’t need to be told that reading is about pleasure, because that’s the only reason they read, probably. What academia often does is kill the pleasure of reading for people.”

Why I Read, as the subtitle suggests, is a tribute to readerly pleasure, at once high-brow and accessible. Lesser counts among her personal favorites many of the great writers of the Western canon, and her explorations of literary craft—divided into chapters on “Character and Plot,” “Novelty,” “Authority,” “Grandeur and Intimacy”—abound with examples from Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, and, above all, Henry James, her favorite novelist. But she won’t have you think she’s a snob, and so she cops to a passion for science fiction and murder mysteries—though her choices (Isaac Asimov, Patricia Highsmith, Scandinavian detective novelists) suggest a certain hierarchy of tastes. Lesser is a broad-minded reader, but she won’t condone “trash reading.” “The kind of pleasure you can get from reading is like no other in the world. People even get pleasure out of reading bad books, and I deplore this,” she sniffs.

Lesser knows that part of the pleasure of reading is ranking writers and books, and debating their merits with other readers. She’s not afraid to give her opinion, to go back and forth with her readers:

You are my silent partner in this enterprise. As I make observations and assertions, you give your assent or withhold it, according to your own opinions. Sometimes I may persuade you, and sometimes you may resist.

Her voice is conversational and impressionistic, filled with digressions, asides, anecdotes, musings, and confessions. At times, she sounds more like a chatty book club leader than a literary essayist. Ulysses, she declares, is a “novel that has always gotten on my nerves”; she “can’t stand” much of D.H. Lawrence’s writing, particularly his 1926 novel The Plumed Serpents, which always sends her into “disbelieving giggles”; she praises Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels for not “let[ting] us off the emotional hook in any way.”

If you can forgive such informalities, many of Lesser’s observations are quite sharp. About the postmodernists, she writes, “An author who self-righteously proclaims that there is no real boundary between fact and fiction is not someone you should trust regarding either.” She raises an eyebrow at the cults around Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon: “Great satire, to last, needs to be offensive even to those who agree with it.” And there’s this bravura passage on the posturing of certain contemporary novelists (she doesn’t name names, but surely you can supply some):

There is a certain kind of writer who seems to feel that unless he is breaking apart everything that came before him, composing something that in his own view is astonishingly new, he is not writing great literature…his preferred mode of public address is sarcasm or heavy irony, both of which are meant to suggest his sophistication, his superiority to banal questions about reality, authenticity, and truth. He has no interest in accurately representing human behavior, partly because he has no interest in accuracy and partly because he has very little interest in other people; what concerns him most is the working of his own mind. He hates with a passion the realist novelists and formalist poets who came just before him, and he is convinced that only he, among all the writers who ever lived, is producing work that will matter to the future.

All of this is great fun. As a bonus, Lesser provides a list of “A hundred books to read for pleasure,” which includes some old standbys (Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield) and some more unexpected choices. One of the main pleasures of Why I Read is discovering new books and authors; Lesser seems to have read everything. I’ve already ordered Australian novelist David Malouf’s Ransom, a reimagining of The Iliad; and The Maias, a 19th-century family saga by Portuguese author José Maria Eça de Queirós.

* * *

But lesser’s case for reading is more than that it’s just fun. Reading is a serious pleasure, a more elevated and elevating pastime than, say, playing Candy Crush on one’s iPhone. What makes literature worthy of our attention, according to Lesser, is its “truth-telling capacity.” She returns to this theme throughout the book; it is her critical “touchstone.” Discussing Russian novels, she writes that “to tell the truth is literature’s highest calling,” and she reaffirms this belief in her conclusion:


I still think it’s possible…to make certain statements about literature that will hold true at least for a while, and one of these statements is about the truth. I hope it is clear to you by now how much this matters to me. If there is anything I hate when I am reading a book, it is the sense that I am being lied to.

It’s clear that Lesser’s belief in fiction’s truth is deeply felt. But strong as this conviction is, she is vague as to what truths can be found in her favorite books. She admits to being “elusive”: “The truths in literature are incidental and cumulative, not global and permanent. In some moods I think that those are the only kinds of truths that really matter.” Nonetheless, she does provide a few hints. A truth-telling book demonstrates “attentiveness to reality, or respect for the world outside oneself,” and thus “one of the most salutary things about reading” is that it forces the reader “to submit to a pattern set by someone else.” In broadening our understanding of human experience, literature broadens our moral understanding, with our new emphathetic knowledge instructing us as to “the innate value of an individual life, or the need for equality and justice, or the importance of art.”

* * *

Why I Read is ultimately an attempt to revitalize this humanistic account of literature’s moral value and significance. Lesser wants to return to the wide-ranging, learned but not academic, and morally serious criticism exemplified by her favorite commentators: George Orwell, William Empson, and, of course, Lionel Trilling. But this purpose is at odds with Lesser’s own highly personalized discussion of reading. Far from submitting to a pattern set by someone else, Lesser is focused almost entirely on her own responses to a work. Her responses are not uninteresting—indeed, there is much to enjoy and to provoke—but too rarely is there the sort of sustained argument about a novel or poem that could deepen the reader’s understanding of the work. Stray insights remain just that—underdeveloped and quickly tossed aside as Lesser moves on to the next topic. No book is discussed at any length, and even the authors she loves and cites most get strangely cursory treatment. We’re told that Dickens creates “humorously, exaggerated characters,” that the great Russian novels have a “philosophic intensity and melancholy humor” about them, and that the novels of Henry James can be enjoyed on an e-reader, but only if you’ve read them once before. At other times, she retreats back into a kind of literary obscurantism, faux profundities littering the text: “no analysis, no description, can ever do full justice to a work of literature. Only the thing itself, rendered in full, can serve as a satisfying example.” “When it comes to literature, we are all groping in the dark.” Typically, with books like this, it’s tough going in the sections about the books one hasn’t read, while the sections on more familiar works are engaging and enlightening. With Lesser, it’s the opposite; her breezy style and quick judgments are well suited to introducing lesser-known works, but leave something wanting when it comes to more familiar territory.

* * *

It is perhaps unfair to criticize Wendy Lesser—the author of no fewer than three literary memoirs—for a self-involved approach to reading. One can hardly say one wasn’t warned. As she declared in her second memoir, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (2002), she won’t apologize for being “both autobiographical and critical” because “what we read is an aspect of the life we have lived.” For her, life and literature are inseparably joined.

In her life as a reader and a critic, she has seen the humanities, if not decline, come at least to occupy a less central place in American life. Many of her fellow critics, especially those in the academy, seem to have given up trying to communicate with the general public. Contemporary literary criticism has become a conversation among a few specialists, conducted largely in an impenetrable, deliberately obscure jargon. So wary is Lesser of killing the pleasure of reading that she is unwilling to put forward any larger argument that would connect the scattered thoughts and impressions that make up Why I Read. The result is an uneven book—one that rightly insists on the value of literature and the literary life, but fails to live up to the responsibility of careful reading and intellectual rigor they both require.