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Why Reading Is Important

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The following is an excerpt from Wendy Lesser's Why I Read [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.00]:

It’s not a question I can completely answer. There are abundant reasons, some of them worse than others and many of them mutually contradictory. 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. And even the obvious reasons may not be the real ones. My motives remain obscure to me because reading is, to a certain extent, a compulsion. As with all compulsions, its sources prefer to stay hidden.

In any case, when I ask myself why I read literature, I am not really asking about motivation. I am asking what I get from it: what delights I have received over the years, what rewards I can expect to glean. This I am sure of. The rewards are enormous. But they too tend toward the intangible, and sometimes the inexpressible. I have tried to express some of them here, but without any hope of being all-encompassing. Partial coverage—a flashlight shining into a dark room, briefly illuminating what sits on the rows of shelves—is all I can realistically aim for.

When it comes to literature, we are all groping in the dark, even the writer. Especially the writer. And that is a good thing—maybe one of the best things about literature. It’s always an adventure of some kind. Even the second or third or tenth time you read it, a book can surprise you, and to discover a new writer you love is like discovering a whole new country. Some countries, like the novels of Nathanael West or J. G. Farrell or E. M. Forster, are only the size of a small island, because their author died young or dried up early. Others, like the novels of Anthony Trollope or Émile Zola, seem to cover a whole continent, requiring years just to map out and superficially explore. One kind of land mass is not better than another (though they do tend to appeal to different tastes), and whichever you prefer, there are always more out there. You will never reach the end.

I suppose if I had to give a one-word answer to the question of why I read, that word would be pleasure. The kind of pleasure you can get from reading is like no other in the world. People even get pleasure out of reading bad books, and I deplore this, but that is only because those books are not to my taste. You will deplore some of the works I hold up as models in this book, and that is not only sensible, but inevitable. Because reading is such an individual act, the plea- sures we derive from literature—even which books we are willing to call “literature”—will not be identical. That is as it should be. Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or con- tempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it. This effect will be particular to each person, and it will change over time, just as the person changes over time—and the richer and more complicated the book is, the more this will be true.

I have tried, in this book, to cast a wide net in my definition of literature, looking at plays, poems, and essays as well as novels and stories. Along with more traditional literary forms, I have included mysteries and science fiction, memoirs and journalism, the only requirement being that the book be well-written enough to last through multiple readings, not to mention multiple generations of readers. With my contemporaries, of course, I have had to guess at this: I possess no magical powers that enable me to see the literary future.

I do, however, have a time-travel machine of sorts, in the form of the literature of the past. Just about everything I know about nineteenth-century England comes out of novels. Ditto for nineteenth-century Russia, late-nineteenth-century France, and twentieth-century India. Those fictional images and experiences are now so much a part of my own mind that superimposed reality pales by comparison. Jane Austen’s Bath is more present to me than the tourist-laden city I have actually visited, and Gogol’s Nevsky Prospect is more memorable than the mundane boulevard I saw when I finally got to St. Petersburg. I will never experience Bombay from the viewpoint of its slums, as Rohinton Mistry allows me to do; I will never feel at home in the actual Paris the way I do in the Paris of Balzac, Zola, or Proust. And even certain parts of America—William Faulkner’s South, Willa Cather’s Southwest, Ross Macdonald’s Southern California—are more familiar to me in their literary form than they are as geographical entities I have or might set foot in.

Does this mean I am in retreat from reality? I don’t think so—or not, anyway, more than the average person who sits at a computer screen, or watches television, or consumes daily newspapers and weekly magazines. We all live much of our lives at one remove. Perhaps this has always been true, but at the present moment it seems more true than ever. One is tempted to blame technology for this: the internet, social media, email. But there is no doing without these things, now that they have arrived, and there is no point in just being resistant. We must live in this world.

I live in it with, and through, literature. That, I suppose, is what I am hoping to transmit—that sense of connection with something other than oneself and one’s friends and one’s life in this time. Reading literature is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different. It can give you the feeling that you belong to the past as well as the present, and it can help you realize that your present will someday be someone else’s past. This may be disheartening, but it can also be strangely consoling at times.

And if the sense of connection we get through literature is an illusory one, how is that any different from most of the kinds of connection we feel these days? Reading has, at any rate, the virtue of being one-to-one. It’s just you and the book, enclosed within a private space; in some ways that means it’s just you, alone with an inert object that you are temporarily bringing to life. So within and beside that palpable sense of connection, that awareness of a vast community of readers and writers stretching backward and forward through time, lies something that seems paradoxically at odds with it: that is, a firm, resilient feeling of detachment. Nothing takes you out of yourself the way a good book does, but at the same time nothing makes you more aware of yourself as a solitary creature, possessing your own particular tastes, memories, associations, beliefs. Even as it fully engages you with another mind (or maybe many other minds, if you count the characters’ as well as the author’s), reading remains a highly individual act. No one will ever do it precisely the way you do.

I hope that, in the course of reading this small book about a rather large subject, you will come to think of it as a conversation we are having. A conversation does not need to have two people speaking to each other in the same room. Nor does it need to have RSS feeds, rapidly tweeted responses, or any of the other contemporary manifestations of interactivity. Some of my most memorable conversations have occurred in mute communion with absent authors. Silence can be a form of response, and it can also be conducive to response: I find that the enduring stillness of a printed page often sets my thoughts racing in a way that more active forms of communication may not. True, the absent writers of such pages cannot hear my reactions to their work, but that doesn’t bother either of us. They so often seem to have anticipated my thoughts that I feel welcomed into the conversation even when I am saying nothing.

And so it will turn out, I hope, between you and me. You too are bringing something to this conversation—your attention, your memories, your interpretations of what I am saying, your reflections on the books you have read. You are my silent partner in this enterprise. As I make observations and assertions, you give your assent or withhold it, according to your own opinions. Sometimes I may persuade you, and sometimes you may resist. In either case, the conversation continues for as long as you are reading the book, and possibly after.

I have never consciously thought about audience before, with any of my previous books. If asked, I would have said something like “I just write for myself and presume that there are others like me,” or “That is the marketing department’s concern.” But with this book—perhaps because it so often contemplates that very relationship between writer and reader, speaker and spoken to, in the works of literature I have loved—I find myself wondering who you are. Are you a young person just starting out on a lifetime of reading, or are you an older reader who has already acquired fixed tastes and preferences? Do you come from a background similar to mine, or are we completely unlike in all sorts of ways? I would hope that the answer might be “all of the above,” and perhaps it can be, for the written word, at least as embodied in the English language, allows “you” to be both singular and plural. It is not only the writer who can say, with Walt Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” That truth applies to readers as well.

A word here about the idea of truth. I will invoke the notion often, and yet I will not be able to define it for you, ex- cept by example. It is one of my touchstones for judging literature, this question of whether a writer is telling me the truth or not. (We will not, for the moment, go into what truth is, because this is something that can vary from author to author. The question of whether truth is in fact single or multiple, capitalized or lowercase, is part of what each good writer is trying to answer truthfully.) You will find the word circling back at you throughout this book, especially in the chapter about authority, but also when I talk about character, about innovative forms, about the relation of the reader’s “you” to the writer’s “I,” about the nature of translation, about grand or intimate perspectives. Whenever the idea surfaces, it is meant to apply equally well to fiction and to nonfiction. Reality and truth, history and truth, are in this respect separable. My use of the term is not arbitrary, but it is elusive, and I hope you will bear with me and allow the process of truth-defining to be cumulative rather than absolute. As far as I know, that is the only way things can work in literature.

I have said that I aimed to make this book conversational, and I do. Clarity is a great virtue. But sometimes things cannot be made instantly clear, and there are times when a form of heightened concentration may be required. This is one of the favors literature has done for me—it has taught me the pleasures of close attention. A work of commentary or criticism is not necessarily a work of literature, but it can aspire to that condition and be the better for it. I aspire, in this little book, toward the qualities I have admired in novels and poetry, including the compression, the indirection, the inherent connections, the organic shape.

There are no topics that absolutely had to be covered in this book. There are no essential facts that I needed to convey to you about literature. There are certain questions that I have long been curious about, and that I wanted to answer for myself as well as for you—questions about the nature of suspense, for instance, and why we feel it even when we know what will happen; questions about our connection to specific characters, as well as their connection to their author; questions about the kinds of sentences that bring a novel into being, or usher us out of it; questions about belief, and doubt, and the historically true, and the fictionally imagined. And then there are the works of literature that have raised these questions in my mind, and through which I hope to answer them. Whether they are fourteen-line poems or six-hundred-page novels, all of these literary works contain multitudes. They refuse to fit neatly into separate chapters and instead reappear as needed, offering their answers to each different question in turn. Nor do they present themselves on demand: they are willful creatures whose movements I do not completely control. Thus I may admire Tolstoy as much as I admire Dostoyevsky (even more, perhaps, if I have just finished reading War and Peace), and yet it is Dostoyevsky who insists on returning again and again to this book, whether I am talking about intimacy or authority or plot, while Tolstoy remains largely behind the scenes, holding himself aloof. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” boasts a character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, to which another character sensibly answers, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?”

So the book has taken its shape organically, as the various willfulnesses, mine and those of the literary sources, battle with each other and resistantly work together. Yet out of this conflict has come some kind of order. I like to picture the final shape of the book as something like a spiral, on which you and I are progressing upward (or perhaps downward) but also round and round. Each new chapter represents a new level of the spiral, so we know we are getting somewhere; and yet we are always circling around the same elongated core, greeting now-familiar works as we pass by them once again. There is movement, but it is not exactly forward movement. There is repetition, but each time the repeated material is seen from a different view. And there is simultaneously a feeling of internal division and a sense of natural flow, since each chamber of the spiral remains connected to the one that came before it and the one that will come after. Happenstance rather than certainty governs the process of growth. Yet once it is finished, the structure will seem to have arrived at its only possible shape, so that there will be some sense of completion, I hope, even in its open-endedness.

Excerpted from WHY I READ: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser, published in January 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Wendy Lesser. All rights reserved.

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'Why I Read' by Wendy Lesser