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Why I Read

The Serious Pleasure of Books

Wendy Lesser


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Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (1/13/2015)
Hardcover, Large Print (5/9/2014)


"Wendy Lesser's extraordinary alertness, intelligence, and curiosity have made her one of America's most significant cultural critics," writes Stephen Greenblatt. 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.

Praise For Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

“The rare and marvelous pleasure of meeting a fellow reader, the sort of person who, in childhood, automatically turned the cereal box so her eyes could rest on words at all times, is here given new form. Wendy Lesser is candid, democratic, brisk, passionate, stubborn, fiercely exact; as in all memorable conversations, I found myself sometimes wishing to debate, and often bursting into private festivals of concurrence. This is a book of rich provocations and rich delights. More than most contemporary critics, Lesser trusts her instinct: what a joy it is to listen, through these pages, to her bold assessments and charismatic opinions.” —Louise Glück, author of Poems 1962–2012

“Reading Why I Read delivers all the pleasure of discussing one's favorite books with a marvelously articulate, intelligent, opinionated friend. It's like joining the book club of your dreams, one in which you don't have to do any of the work or think up intelligent things to say, but can simply enjoy reading about books you've read or want to read.” —Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer

“Wendy Lesser has read just about everything, and proves a wonderfully companionable guide to books high and low. Rather than attempting anything ponderously encyclopedic, she follows her hunches, asking good, probing questions, voicing cultivated, intelligent opinions and surprising judgments, and doing it all with humor, dash, and skeptical humility. The result is a treat for all who love reading.” —Phillip Lopate, author of To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

“Wendy Lesser's extraordinary alertness, intelligence, and curiosity have made her one of America's most significant cultural critics.” —Stephen Greenblatt

“An intellectual of unflinching dignity and gravitas, founder of The Threepenny Review and author of nine previous books--including literary memoir, cultural criticism, and an incandescent study of Shostakovich--Lesser talks within books as few now are able to do . . . We turn to a book like Lesser's not only to help us unravel the DNA of literature (what Hazlitt named the gusto in the soul of literature) but to commune with a mind abler than our own, to augment our own appreciation and understanding. Everywhere in Why I Read lie ribbons of literary wisdom . . . Lesser's voice is so congenial, measured, authoritative and sane, it seems downright impervious to quarrel. From Hopkins to Cervantes to Dickinson, from Herzen to Klemperer to Louise Gluck, she is equally discerning and deft . . . In Why I Read she has written a necessary addition to the canonical titles of appreciation. Wendy Lesser is a serious reader--a quality reader--and this book is a serious pleasure.” —William Giraldi, The New York Times Book Review

“Exuberantly digressive . . . 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 . . . [Why I Read] 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.” —Claire Messud, Bookforum

“More than 50 years after [Henry] Miller published The Books in My Life, Wendy Lesser has brought out an equally personal reading memoir . . . Why I Read is a model for the modern age, with a list of 100 books to read for pleasure and a notice at the back advertising an online guide for reading groups. But her instincts are those of her literary forebears.” —The Economist

“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 . . . Lesser, a longtime Berkeley resident, founded and edits the elegant literary journal the Threepenny Review. Author of nine prior books and contributor to various prominent literary venues, hers has been a no-holds-barred, art-loving life, and her dedication to that quest irradiates Why I Read.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Reading Wendy Lesser is like attending a book club where the leader is an Olympic champion reader. Think the Dana Torres of page-turning . . . [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.” —Christian Science Monitor

“A witty, wise, and buoyant book full of the sense of adventure and the capacity for surprise that Lesser values in literature itself . . . We finish reading Lesser enlarged by the delights and rewards of her prose, enriched by her insights, and with an expansive sense of possibility.” —The Boston Globe

“Plenty of surprises . . . wonderfully unpretentious.” —Columbus Dispatch

“In this elegantly meandering narrative, critic and editor Lesser (Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen String Quartets), founder of the Threepenny Review, 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's idiosyncratic reading list and her wealth of insights will speak to booklovers of all types.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9780374289201, 240pp.

Publication Date: January 7, 2014

About the Author

Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of a novel and several books of nonfiction, including Music for Silenced Voices and Why I Read, which garnered rave reviews from coast to coast. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. To complete You Say to Brick, she received one of the first National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar awards.