Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Serious pleasure reading

Where but in Wendy Lesser's Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books might one find a discussion of both Isaac Asimov and Henry James in the same paragraph? True, James fares better, but she finds "serious pleasure" in both. To this writer and literary critic, virtually any book can stimulate intellectual excitement.

To Lesser, it isn't so much what we read as how we read. "Pleasure reading is a hungry activity: it gnaws and gulps at its object, as if desirous of swallowing the whole thing in one sitting," she says. "But we need to slow down, and at times even come to a deal stop, if we are to savor all the dimensions of a literary work."

The mystery, at least for me, is how Lesser can "slow down" and yet still read and then reread as many books as she does. And while she may read the occasional Asimov, most of her reading seems to be more of the difficulty level of James, Faulkner, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. What would be challenging, even intimidating reading to most of us, she treats as casual reading.

One of the many interesting thoughts Lesser offers is that there is no such thing as progress in literature. It's not like chemistry or engineering, which advances decade by decade. We may view contemporary literature as superior simply because it is easier to follow and more relevant to our lives today, but that doesn't make it better (or worse) literature. Lesser points out that one of the miracles of literature is that those reading it a century or more after it was written may find things in it the original readers did not. Books change as their readers change.

Like the literature she favors, Lesser's book can be challenging. So just slow down and savor it.

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