Michael Dirda has done it. So has Francine Prose. And Alberto Manguel, and Larry McMurtry, and David Shields, and Maureen Corrigan, and Anne Fadiman (over and over again). The Very Personal Book About My Love Of Reading is practically a rite of passage for bibliophilic essayists. (The motif de rigueur is an impassioned and somewhat desperate plea to readers that books still matter in the age of Instagram and Candy Crush.) And as an impassioned reader myself, I must admit that every new title lights a small spark of excitement: perhaps this will be the book that demystifies my deep and abiding love for other people’s fictional worlds.
Wendy Lesser's Why I Read is not that book. Lesser digs through her reading past (relying a good bit on her extensive knowledge of Dostoevsky to fill in any holes) and wanders through a series of vague and slightly mushy explanations for her love of reading. Full of trite sentences like “The result is not everything; the process is part of the result,” and “The characters have very strong views about their lives,” the biggest issue in Why I Read is that it lacks a core, a central tenet to which Lesser’s theories and emotions can attach themselves. Instead, the book feels like a superficial skip down memory lane, unfortunately cluttered with wrongheaded and ill-conceived judgments like “There is no progress in the world of letters.” In a convoluted attempt at some type of meta-self-awareness, Lesser admits that her arguments are ambiguous to the point of bewilderment (“I have been making so many broad assertions that my readers may well feel their credulity exhausted”), but she never corrects the error.
Books like Lesser’s should be celebrations or investigations or even indictments. But here we have just another literary vanity project. And maybe we don’t need another lesson in why we should revere Tolstoy and canonize Orwell. Maybe we just need to pull their works off our shelves and settle in for a good, long read.
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