Between the Covers with Wendy Lesser’s ‘Why I Read’

Lee Polevoi


Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

Wendy Lesser


223 pages


Why do we read? For some, the purpose is to escape the pressures of everyday life. Others wish to gain information and acquire knowledge (not necessarily the same thing). Many readers simply enjoy the satisfaction of encountering well-crafted prose, be it fiction or nonfiction. It may be safe to say that many of us never even consider the question – though knowing the answer might significantly enhance our reading experience.


As the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, a prominent American literary magazine, Wendy Lesser is uniquely positioned to explore the pleasures and strategies of reading. In Why I Read, she embarks on a free-ranging and broad analysis of certain novels, stories, plays, poems and essays that have resonated with her over a lifetime of reading.


“ … When I ask myself why I read literature, I am not really asking about motivation,” Lesser writes. “I am asking what I get from it: what delights I have received over the years, what rewards I can expect to glean.”



The rewards, as well as the books she chooses to highlight, are eclectic. Lesser finds pleasure and meaning in the works of the 19th century masters (Henry James, Dostoyevsky) as well as literature in translation (Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolano) and mysteries (Ross MacDonald, Patricia Highsmith and Scandinavian authors like Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell). Readers of Why I Read will find her range of expertise impressive, but not oppressive.


When Lesser goes deeper in her analysis of great works of fiction, however, some readers unfamiliar with those works may feel a bit lost.  Not all of us have read Brothers Karamazov or Henry James’ The Golden Bowl—and her acute scrutiny will either drive us to tackle these behemoths of literature or skim ahead to her examination of Highsmith or Isaac Asimov. But there’s no denying the authority with which she probes into what makes these novels endure from generation to generation.


Lesser’s enthusiasm for “novelty” in literature is more qualified: “As an end in itself, stylistic innovation is merely a way of showing off, a useless if mildly entertaining trapeze act; only when harnessed to the author’s fervent story-telling does it become significant.” While addressing the “usual suspects” like Joyce, she does readers a genuine service by drawing attention to such lesser-known practitioners of stylistic innovation as Penelope Fitzgerald, who late in life “became an undisputed if rather strange master of the form.”


Why I Read offers a respite from the scattershot effect of reading as we know it today. As promised in her subtitle, Lesser is serious about the benefits of literature – and the commitment readers must make to reap those benefits. She’s also pragmatic about the idea of “progress” in the world of books:


“There is no progress in the world of letters, as there is, say, in science or manufacturing. As the centuries pass, we do not get better or smarter at reading, and the authors among us do not get better at writing. Things come and go, make sense to us or not, depending on our particular state of mind, and we change our minds over the course of a lifetime.”


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s Chief Book Critic and the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter. 

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