January 16, 2014

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books - Wendy Lesser

Why I Read book cover Wendy Lesser
Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser
Publisher: Farrar, Strous & Giroux
Publication Date: January 7, 2014
Source/Format: Netgalley (Thank you, Macmillan!) || e-galley
[I received this book from the publisher. This in no way affects the thoughts expressed in my review.]

In Why I Read, Lesser draws on a lifetime of pleasure reading and decades of editing one of the most distinguished literary magazines in the country,The Threepenny Review, to describe her love of literature. As Lesser writes in her prologue, “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.”

Here the reader will discover a definition of literature that is as broad as it is broad-minded. In addition to novels and stories, Lesser explores plays, poems, and essays along with mysteries, science fiction, and memoirs. As she examines these works from such perspectives as “Character and Plot,” “Novelty,” “Grandeur and Intimacy,” and “Authority,” Why I Read sparks an overwhelming desire to put aside quotidian tasks in favor of reading. Lesser’s passion for this pursuit resonates on every page, whether she is discussing the book as a physical object or a particular work’s influence. “Reading literature is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different,” she writes. “It can give you the feeling that you belong to the past as well as the present, and it can help you realize that your present will someday be someone else’s past. This may be disheartening, but it can also be strangely consoling at times.”

A book in the spirit of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Elizabeth Hardwick’s A View of My Own, Why I Read is iconoclastic, conversational, and full of insight. It will delight those who are already avid readers as well as neophytes in search of sheer literary fun.

Why I Read reads a lot like a thesis, because it's so serious and filled with serious literature. Yet, even though it read like a school thesis or a scholarly journal article, there was just something incredibly interesting about it at the same time. I found myself alternately amused, interested, skimming, and completely relating to what Lesser had to say.

Even though it was heavy with facts and quotations from classic novels, Wendy's writing just balanced it out perfectly. She had many quotable passages, mentioning things I could simply relate to as a reader. In fact, just to prove my point, I'll share a few of these quotes below. [Please note that these are taken from a review copy, and are subject to change in the actual book.]
"When it comes to literature, we are all groping in the dark, even the writer. Especially the writer. And that is a good thing -- maybe one of the best things about literature. It's always an adventure of some kind. Even the second or third or tenth time you read it, a book can surprise you, and to discover a new writer you love is like discovering a whole new country."
"Nothing takes you out of yourself the way a good book does, but at the same time nothing makes you more aware of yourself as a solitary creature, possessing your own particular tastes, memories, associations, beliefs. Even as it fully engages you with another mind (or maybe many other minds, if you count the characters' as well as the author's), reading remains a highly individual act. No one will ever do it precisely the way you do."
"Sometimes, when I have ordered an old book on the internet and it finally arrives in the mail, and after I have thrown away the packaging and poured myself a drink and sat down in my favorite chair, I open the cover and sniff the pages before I even start to read. I always think the smell of that paper goes with its feel, the tangible sensation of a thick, textured, easily turnable page on which the embedded black print looks as if it could be felt with a fingertip, even when it can't."
It's important to note, of course, that this novel is only the opinion of one person and not a generalization of everyone's habits. Even though it might appear to be so based on the quotes I've included, not everything Wendy included in her novel was applicable to me.

Honestly, I dove into Why I Read to take a break from my YA books. It might not have been the most readable material, but I still found myself engrossed. If you're interested in exploring your reading habits, and trying to reflect on why you read, this might appeal to you. 


  1. There was a time when I read little, if anything, apart from non-fiction, and I greatly miss that! I've vowed to make more of an effort to do so in the new year, but so far have had little luck. That said, I'm certainly going to be adding this book to my to-be-read list, as I for one think it sounds really interesting! While it might be a little dry and scholarly, I really enjoyed the quotations you included in your review and think that Lasser made a number of valuable points. While it's certainly not the sort of book I would expect to read in a single sitting, I think this could really help me to better reflect on my own reading habits.

    I'm so thankful you brought this book to my attention, Alexa! :)

  2. Oof not sure this one would be for me - reads a lot like a thesis is intimidating haha. But it does sound like a very relatable one as a reader for sure! Also you updated your blog design! Very light and pretty! I love your new picture on the sidebar! Can't wait to see you again at BEA! :D Are you going the blogger picnic again this year? I missed it last year bc I was all the way in NJ but this year I'll be in a NYC hotel so I'm THERE if it's happening!

  3. I was curious about this one, so I'm glad to see your review. It doesn't seem like something I'm going to buy, but I may keep an eye out for it at the library. I do enjoy books about books, but I've found that it's pretty common for them to be 1) kinda dray and 2) focus on serious literature. I'm so used to reading blogs (where people fangirl about their love of books) that it can be hard to transition to a non-fiction book about books that reads more scholarly. I did love some of the passages you highlighted though, so I'm still interested in reading it at some point.


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