Lesser Is Better . . . and Wonderful: Why to Read Why I Read

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9780374289201[1]If you love to read books, you will love Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser, founder and editor of The Threepenny Review. As the New York Times reviewer wrote, “Wendy Lesser is a serious reader — a quality reader — and this book is a serious pleasure.”

Having just finished the book, I can report that it is like your fantasy book club come to life. Indeed, the author Francine Prose describes the experience as follows:

“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.”

Here is but one small example that resonated for this writer, whose love of James Joyce’s story “The Dead” (in Dubliners) is matched only by his exasperation with the pretentiousness of long passages of Ulysses:UlyssesCover[1]

For a very different approach to literary innovation, consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. This is a novel that has always gotten on my nerves. I admit that part of what is annoying is how much other people love it and praise it, when it leaves me completely cold. I vastly prefer the youthful author of Dubliners, and even the slightly pushier fellow behind Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to the highly self-conscious innovator who wrote Ulysses. By the time he reached that point, Joyce had begun to congeal into the artist who would eventually produce the nearly unreadable Finnegans Wake, and the obvious source of the rot was his overweening desire for a great literary reputation. This trumped all other literary desires on his part, so that things which had mattered to him earlier—the creation of believable human figures, the portrayal of a particular moment in Dublin’s and Ireland’s history, the use of language as an element in our common experience, the reliance on real as opposed to fabricated emotions—all gave way to this one enormous wish: to be the greatest, most impressive writer of his generation. This is not a literary impulse but a self-promotional one, and you can sense it in every chapter, almost every line, of Ulysses. We are meant to admire each tour de force for its cleverness and its brilliance. We are meant to recognize and applaud the skillful scene-by-scene parallels between the heroic Homeric tale and its reduced Dublin version, the chortlingly amusing imitations of other literary forms, the archetypal renderings of Jew and Catholic and man and woman. Woman! Don’t get me started. If I hate anything more than the rest of the book, it’s that ridiculously orgasmic Molly Bloom soliloquy with which Joyce concludes—a ventriloquist’s dummy masquerading as a character. Reading her breathy Yeses, I can hear her all-too-evident author congratulating himself on his literary genius.

To which, to quote Molly Bloom, “Yes I said yes Yes. Yes, I say.”

You can read more and sample a chapter at Ms. Lesser’s blog.

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