Sunday, June 29, 2014

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

Every once in a while, I come across a book about reading.  Recently, I reviewed Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch about reading George Eliot’s classic Victorian novel.  Francine Prose wrote, Reading Like a Writer for another example.  Now Wendy lesser has added to this collection with Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books.

According to the dust jacket, “Wendy Lesser is the founder of The Threepenny Review, [an outstanding literary magazine].  She is the author of eight previous books of nonfiction and one novel.  She won a prize for Music for Silenced Voices: Shostokovich and His Fifteen Quartets.  She has written for The New York Times Book Review, and my favorite The Times [London] Literary Supplement. 

Lesser divides the book into convenient categories including, “Character and Plot,” “Novelty,” Authority,” “Grandeur and Intimacy,” and the intriguing “Inconclusions.”  However my favorite proved to be the “Afterword: The Book as Physical Object.”

Her style is chatty and actually fun.  She opens her prologue with, “It’s not a question I can completely answer.  There are abundant reasons, some of them worse that others and many of them mutually contradictory.  To pass the time.  To savor the existence of time.  To escape from myself in someone else’s words.  To exercise my critical capacities.  To flee from the need for rational explanations” (3).  Although I have never given it much thought, these are all reasons I read.

When I was about 6 or 7, I was already an avid reader.  I wanted more of what my mother would share with me before I lay me down to sleep each night.  One day, I asked my Dad where he learned all the things he did.  Is one word answer, “Books” hooked me and raised me from avid to voracious.

When Lesser starts a new book, she tells us, “”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” (188). 

She also brings the interesting idea spatial aspect of a printed book.  She writes, “someone who remembers specific passages in the spatial way I do – as in ‘I think it was on the left-hand side of the page, not more than two or three pages before a chapter break” – becomes lost in the amorphous, ever-varying sea of the digital page” (189).  She mentions the conveniences of tablets and e-readers.

When she finishes a book, she holds “the pleasant weight of the closed book for a moment in my hands, as if to bid its story a silent goodbye, and then I turned it over” (204). 

Wendy Lesser and I are kindred spirits.  We both have the same devotion to the printed page in all aspects: vision, touch, smell, and, of course memory.  Get a copy of Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books and explore in detail your love of reading.

--Chiron, 6/16/14

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