READING LIFE: BOOKS FOR THE AGES Sven Birkerts
If I’ve been tardy about replenishing this blog of late, blame it on Sven Birkerts. In this new collection of essays, he waxes so eloquent about the experience of re-reading the books that have mattered to him that one has been compelled to start re-reading some of them oneself – having just finished Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, one is about to embark on Ford’s The Good Soldier.
It’s typical of the Harvard professor and Agni editor to eschew academic posturing and jargon; instead, his essays deal with episodes from his life when he first read the books – teaching experiences, shifts of residence, childhood incidents, break-ups – and what he now feels upon re-reading them. (One of the essays, in fact, was earlier published in Anne Fadiman's delightful Rereadings.) Thus, we learn of his students’ reactions to Lolita, of his former girlfriend’s enthusiasm for Women in Love, of his finally managing to complete The Ambassadors on his fifth attempt and more: an account of the books that are his “personal signposts”.
His enthusiasm for literature and reading is infectious, and his conclusions and revelations are always interesting. Which makes this a most engaging collection. (Okay, enough adjectives.)
Worth your while? In his recent essay, The Curtain, Milan Kundera quotes Proust: “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth”. If that’s your credo, this book’s for you.