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Why Does She Read?

April 17, 2014 by Reader's Connection

The Sportswriter

Oh, no! Wendy Lesser really likes Richard Ford, and recommends that I read all the Bascombe novels. I didn’t even get far in The Sportswriter, the first in the series; and I’ve read a half-dozen stories by Ford without believing a word of them. His male characters seem like models put together in somebody’s basement, glued with a hardware-store-brand testosterone putty.



And Ms. Lesser doesn’t think much of Ulysses. What are we going to do with this woman?


But wait a minute.


She loves Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer mysteries.

And in her list of 100 books that gave her pleasure, she includes the Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels. I wonder if, like me, she now enjoys the later Nachman stories more than those jagged works that I liked so much when I was younger.

So Long, See You Tomorrow


Also on her list is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. And Absalom, Absalom!



Why I Read : The Serious Pleasure of Books

Okay, I’m warming up, now. And since when do you read a book like this expecting to agree with everything the author says?


Why I Read : The Serious Pleasure of Books is a serious pleasure. Lesser focuses on a few central themes, such as: The importance of suspense in a story, even when we all know what’s going to happen. An extreme case is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written, or so Milton claimed, to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Paradise Lost

Nobody reads Paradise Lost for the plot, of course. But knowing what will happen lends an essential element to the experience of reading, in that it creates the exact tension between predestination and free will that Milton is attempting to explore in the poem. We know where these characters are headed and yet, minute by minute, we feel no sense of moral or epistemological superiority to them. On the contrary, we undergo their fates with them, as if in real time, or perhaps even a stretched-out version of real time, a version that mimics eternity. It takes forever for them to fall, and we hope for every moment of that forever that they will resist; then, when they have fallen, we hope they will get away with it. Our foreknowledge and our sympathies are completely at odds, just as God’s would have been (or ought to have been, if he was a good God). If this mixed reaction on our part doesn’t finally justify Him, it at any rate makes even His position more sympathetic.


I Will Bear Witness Later in the book, she writes about Victor Klemperer’s World War II diaries, which have been translated into English as I Will Bear Witness. Klemperer was a scholar and a Jew who didn’t want to leave Dresden.

Klemperer is not a brilliant writer, and in any case this is a diary, not necessarily meant for other eyes. His style is plodding; his concerns are often petty. But his story is gripping, in part because of the plodding and the pettiness. This is normal life, gradually becoming less normal as each year passes . . . For anyone who recalls the salient fact about Dresden’s twentieth-century history–the firebombing of 1945–the diary is like two competing stories racing toward each other at different speeds . . . Peering through the lens of history, we are enabled to be two sizes at once: the antlike creature blindly moving forward on the ground, and the godlike overseer waiting for the inevitable explosion. It is a remarkable experience, and I have rarely in my reading life felt such suspense.

As one of the dust jacket blurbs says, Wendy Lesser seems to have read everything. When I set down Why I Read, there are several books that I wanted to get my hands on. And even though I’ve read just a fraction of what she has, I imagine myself having the nerve to spray her with my own observations.

War and PeaceWhen she’s writing about grandeur vs. intimacy, for example–another of her themes–I collar her and squeal, “What about that party at the beginning of War and Peace? I remember that author John Jakes thought it was boring, a terrible way to start the novel. I thought he was nuts. The party was thrilling! Grandeur and intimacy in one yank of the tablecloth! In no way isolated from the rest of the epic.”

I haven’t gotten around to imagining Ms. Lesser’s reaction.


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