Today's Sunday Guardian column.
Now that Jaipur's "largest free literary festival on earth” has come to a close, it’s time to return to the quiet, private activity that makes all such festivals possible. Reading. As Anna Quindlen observes in How Reading Changed My Life, “Of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort...reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung.”
Her own love of reading is what Wendy Lesser, founding editor of the Threepenny Review, unpacks in her new book, Why I Read. Why does she read? “To pass the time. To savor the existence of time.To escape from myself into someone else’s world.To find myself in someone else’s words.To exercise my critical capacities. To flee from the need for rational explanations.” In short, as the book’s subtitle has it, reading yields serious pleasure.
Lesser goes on make clear where she finds such pleasure, and in this, she reveals herself to be more conservative than catholic. Nineteenth century literary realism is her touchstone, and Henry James her exemplar. Authors bare their prejudices and partialities in the books they write; readers do so with the ones they read.
Many of Lesser’s opinions – and some can be incisive – arise from a dissection of her favoured tradition. On plot and character, for example, she writes, “it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of plot versus character: plot modifies character and character modifies plot…we know what people are only by seeing what they do when confronted with what happens to them”.
It’s not that Lesser only focuses on so-called literary fiction: happily, murder mysteries and detective stories come in for praise, too. “A novel like A Coffin for Dimitrios or Ripley Under Ground is as good as almost any book written during that time, and I venture to say we will be reading these novels for as long as people read John Updike or Toni Morrison.”
She is acerbic, however, when it comes to those who fall outside her preferred purview: “There is a certain kind of writer who seems to feel that unless he is breaking apart everything that came before him, composing something that in his own view is astonishingly new, he is not writing great literature.” She makes the point that style and structure should be at the service of overall intent and not merely ornamental, but strangely, scorns those who have done so. Franz Kafka’s “strongest works are almost unbearable because of the airlessness of their self-enclosure” and Joyce’s Ulysses “is a novel that has always gotten on my nerves”. The past, as always, has the answers, with Cervantes and Swift held up as successful innovators. (To be fair, there's also praise for Murakami and Bolano as well as -- oddly enough -- Norman Mailer.)
Other Modernists are hardly mentioned, and she also disdains the unreliable narrator, “that foolish, pathetic guy who thinks he’s telling us the whole story when we and the author are obviously meant, at least eventually, to see around him”. Anyone who’s read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, to take just one example, would find that hard to digest.
Lesser’s slightly more accommodating of e-books. Preferring the physical object for its spatial orientation, among other things, she nonetheless is a fan of Project Gutenberg and rightly points out that those "who have grown up reading bound books will miss them if they disappear, not because printed books are objectively preferable, but because we will feel deprived of something we care about".
Such devotion to reading in an age of electronic distraction is admirable, but Lesser's insistence on preferred texts makes her book overly prescriptive. Then again, her title does have a personal pronoun. For a different point of view, one has to turn to another logophile, Alberto Manguel, who, echoing Kafka, once wrote: “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?"