I HAD TO CHUCKLE when I approached the end of Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser’s latest meditation on reading and came across an odd admission from the author: “There are many times when I’ve been tempted to […] say ‘Don’t listen to me. Just go read!’” I laughed because I’d done just that. About a third of the way through, having already bitten off a big hunk of what Lesser has to say about the four genres of literature and happily chewed my way through her observations on greats ranging from James to Proust to Shakespeare, I came to a section on thrillers and, more generally, books about murderers. On reading Lesser’s insightful take on Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, I stood up — I was reading in a library — and found the Malcolm on a shelf and started reading it right then and there, and I didn’t return to Why I Read until I was finished. It’s a great book and so is Lesser’s.
There may be no better evidence that literature is going through a period of soul-searching than the recent spate of books whose very titles suggest that the basic purpose of reading needs to be revisited. Probably, and this isn’t a half bad idea, an interesting course could be designed around these works. The syllabus might include Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love With Poetry, Ronald Hayman’s How to Read a Play, Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, and perhaps even Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life.
At first glance it may not seem that Why I Read belongs on this list, but actually it does, if for no other reason than that Lesser decries her “why” from the very start (“It’s not a question I can completely answer” is her first sentence), and because Why I Read goes on to demonstrate that whatever can be said about why anyone reads is related to how it tends to get done.
That’s actually the book’s first significant pivot. You know pretty much from the start that the book won’t simply articulate why we read. “Life often foils us,” Lesser writes, “with its coincidences and its dead ends. We turn to literature to remedy the loss, to impose some kind of meaningful order on the nonsequential.” But she’s quick to insist that this isn’t the whole answer: books meet us “only halfway,” and “our inability to know everything is one of the truths [books] leave us with.” Hence there can be no single answer as to why anyone reads.
Which is perhaps why Why I Read shifts and goes on to organize itself around a series of categories that first make the book seem like a craft manual (“Character and Plot”) but quickly veer off into more Emersonian organizing principles (“Novelty” and “Grandeur and Intimacy”). It’s here that Lesser offers up a whole bunch of great advice on how literature can and should be done. “[Y]ou can only achieve an exemplary kind of novelty if it is not, primarily, what you are trying to achieve,” she writes. And, a few pages later, “[C]onvincing works of literature must possess an element of doubt.” But even if aphorisms like these would seem to align Lesser with Bloom and Wood and Hirsch, it would be a mistake to conclude that Why I Read is just another highbrow how-to book, as these nuggets appear only after Lesser has categorically stated that she “ha[s] no prescriptions for producing great works.” And speaking of speaking categorically, Lesser invites us to question even her strategy of organizing discussions of literature around categories: “Literature does not lend itself to being corralled.”
So there’s some caginess to this exercise. Surely the point is to emphasize the value of literature’s indefiniteness, and I can’t remember the last time I read a book that worked so hard to avoid having anything definitive to say. On one occasion, Lesser claims that we can read a thriller “with a kind of interest that is comparable to, though very different from, the interest” we might bring to a psychological novel, but she doesn’t qualify either the comparison or the difference. On another, she says that the “balancing act” of nonfiction narrators in terms of reliability is “both a trick and not a trick,” but how it is a trick at all, as opposed to a balancing act, remains unstated. Lesser herself appears to recognize the inadequacy of words to her task: “The work speaks to you or it does not. That is all you can finally say.” She goes on for another hundred pages.
That sounds persnickety, but I don’t mean it to. There may be times when Why I Read seems a bit handcuffed by the need to provide at least an illusion of an organizing principle, but Lesser quickly and wisely sets that aside and spends most of the book giving us what we have come to expect from one of our time’s most prolific and consequential literary minds: the chance to listen in as she considers the books that have stood out most in her lifetime of reading, quite as if we’ve been fortunate enough to sit down beside her for a chat. If she occasionally seems to omit something essential — she first and foremost acknowledges that she will leave out authors we cherish (full disclosure: I was also reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as I read Why I Read, and I was scandalized to see Stein go unmentioned) — or if she strikes a vague note or takes a stand that gets our back up, we should recall that one of the keenest pleasures of literature is being aroused, even to outrage, by the productions of a mind at work on a subject that we value because it resists, as Lesser reminds us, every attempt to pin it down.
At the start of the last chapter, significantly called “Inconclusions,” Lesser tells the story of a serial killer book that recently disappointed her precisely because it ended without offering any clue as to the motive of the killer — without, that is, any definitive answer to the question “Why?” Clearly Lesser is teasing us here, tempting us to reassign her frustration, to apply it to how she intends to leave off her own protracted study, and it’s probably fair to say that she would empathize with an impulse to kick back against this late-in-the-game claim: “I never said we were going to get somewhere definite with this investigation.” However, to understand her on this point we must resist the knee-jerk reaction and read between the lines a bit.
And we’ve been asked to do so. In prologue, Lesser tells us:
A work of commentary or criticism is not necessarily a work of literature, but it can aspire to that condition and be the better for it. I aspire, in this little book, toward the qualities I have admired in novels and poetry, including the compression, the indirection, the inherent connections, the organic shape.
So what happens when we mine Why I Read for its inherent connections? Among Lesser’s many discussions of “serious” books — a term she never defines but which in context pretty clearly references all those who would hope to count literature as an art (also treated are Glück, Bolaño, Sebald, Marías, etc.) — she returns again and again, with the insistence of theme, to the implications of thrillers and books about killers. There is nothing casual about this interest. Lesser has a particular affinity for Scandinavian thrillers (her list includes Jo Nesbø, Arne Dahl, and husband and wife writing team Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall), but she also has a comprehensive knowledge of Patricia Highsmith, Ross Macdonald, and many others. Why I Read is probably just a hair’s breadth away from being a study of serial killer books (much in the same way Jane Tompkins’s West of Everything is a study of Westerns), and reading it for its basic purpose is a little like reading a crime novel: you will forever find yourself in pursuit of an elusive motive. And, for me, what leaps to mind as I connect Lesser’s interest in thrillers to the anecdote of her disappointing serial killer novel is that what she says of murderers in books like The Executioner’s Song and The Journalist and the Murderer — “The central characters themselves, those characters who began as real people, do not appear to understand fully why they have done what they are accused of doing; they either cannot or will not explain it to our satisfaction. And yet we have a desperate desire to know” — applies equally well to my reading Lesser’s chronicle of her lifelong experience as a book lover.
In other words, then, the truth of Lesser’s literary life is that she is something like a serial reader, moving from book to book, unable to explain her motives even though we have a desperate desire to know them. Why I Read, then, is a critical answer to all those books of criticism that do not aspire to the condition of literature, and that would think of readers as detectives when really they are more like criminals, moving inscrutably from victim to victim.
J.C. Hallman is the editor of The Story About the Story Series from Tin House. His new book, about the work of Nicholson Baker, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, will appear next year from Simon & Schuster.