What a relief. Over the weekend I managed to finish Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. I borrowed this book from the library and since there is a waiting list there are no renewals. I have to return it Wednesday. I also finished the book I was assigned for review by Library Journal, The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood. And I wrote and submitted my tiny review; 190 words, I was not to go over 200. I am not sure what the etiquette of writing about that book here is. I’ll have to figure that out.
I started reading both of these books about the same time. I did not get off to a good start with theThe Critic and was very angry that in nearly 300 years of public literary criticism none of the essays focused on a female critic. But I had Lesser’s book going and she was making me happy, so very easy going and chatty, I had a hard time being interested in The Critic. But as irony would have it, I ended up liking The Critic quite a lot and Lesser’s book, meh.
There is nothing especially wrong with Why I Read. As I said, Lesser has an easy going, chatty style and she loves books and reading. She says in the prologue that she decided to write the book in order to figure out not why she reads so much as what she gets from it. But really the book is about various aspects of books that she finds interesting, that motivate her to read and give her pleasure.
Lesser works her way through the various elements, discussing her favorite books and how they are examples of the chapter topic. She gives us a chapter on plot and character, novelty, authority, grandeur and intimacy, things like that. And it is all very well and good and I now have a short list of books she mentions that sound really interesting some of which I have never heard of.
In the end, however, I found myself wondering why I should even care about why Lesser reads. While I added some books to my TBR list, her discussions were nine parts enthusiasm to one part useful and interesting. Judging from the lack of pages I marked, I might actually need to downgrade that to only 1/2 of one part useful and interesting. She doesn’t bring anything new to the table, nothing fresh, and definitely nothing that would aid a reader in her own reading of any given book.
The final chapter is an “afterword” in which Lessor retreads the digital versus print debate. She owns an ereader and buys and reads digital books but firmly believes in the superiority of print. Which is fine, but I found it hard to care by this point and became really disturbed by her lack of understanding in the realm of copyright and why so many mid-twentieth century books are not available in a digital format.
I feel like I am being a bit too hard on Why I Read because it suffered from being read alongside The Critic. Lesser wasn’t aiming for insightful commentary or an intellectual history. She just wanted to spend some time conversing about all the things that make reading books so enjoyable. In that she succeeds. It just turned out that I wanted thought-provoking instead of easy going.