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Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books
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Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

3.24  ·  Rating details ·  558 Ratings  ·  143 Reviews
"Wendy Lesser's extraordinary alertness, intelligence, and curiosity have made her one of America's most significant cultural critics," writes Stephen Greenblatt. In Why I Read, Lesser draws on a lifetime of pleasure reading and decades of editing one of the most distinguished literary magazines in the country, The Threepenny Review, to describe her love of literature. As ...more
Hardcover, 223 pages
Published January 7th 2014 by Farrar Straus Giroux
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Jenny (Reading Envy)
I usually love books about reading because I find kindred spirits among other lovers of books. But Wendy Lesser is far too worried about what readers of "serious literature" think about her reading and opinions on books. She writes about plot and character, novelty, translation, time travel (through reading), grandeur and intimacy, but she is quick to back pedal after mentioning genre fiction or authors who surely others will judge as lesser than Henry James. (No no no, nobody is arguing that Is ...more
Wyatt Packard
Nov 12, 2013 marked it as dnf
Shelves: nonfiction
Thank you very much Macmillan and Edelweiss for providing me with a copy for review!

I should have loved this book, right? I mean, I wanted to like it. Answering the question of just why we read is totally a subject that I am interested in. Heck, I work at a library and look forward to going to school to get my Master's in Library Science. Unfortunately, Lesser's writing did not grab me, even though the topic itself is one that I find fascinating. I believe my main issue was her use of examples o
Dec 15, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2014
Right in the first chapter of the book, Lesser drops major spoilers for virtually all of Henry James, The Leopard, Wolf Hall, The Brothers Karamazov, The Redbreast, Rosanna and Os Maias. She does driveby spoilings, just mentioning in passing the end of two books she's not even talking about. She does stealth spoiling - like this: "In [name of book] you never do find out who the murderer is, unlike when it's the butler in [name of totally different book]", so you don't even see it coming. It's li ...more
May 27, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Author Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, an American literary magazine. Having spent her life working in the world of books, this contains an analysis of why she loves reading and what it means to her. As an avid reader, I found the introduction of this book very enjoyable. Having mused on what reading means to her, she then investigates many of the themes of reading – such as character and plot, grandeur and intimacy, literary authority, truth and imperfections.

Rene Singley
Nov 26, 2013 rated it liked it
While I enjoyed this book, at times I felt it read more like a textbook than a book on the joys of reading.
Aug 09, 2013 rated it liked it
I tend to love books that celebrate the reading life, but this one was a little too...esoteric? It may have been because she focused on books that, for the most part, I haven't read, but I ultimately found this one just kinda boring.
Oswego Public Library District
This articulate book will appeal to those who love literature. Wendy Lesser, founding editor of "The Threepenny Review" navigates the reader through plays, poetry, and primarily historical literature carefully and thoroughly. Much of the tone is rather scholarly, and then suddenly she will depart from this and discuss contemporary authors with delight. This book is meant to make the reader think about what we are supposed to receive from the act of reading, and why we should consider re-reading. ...more
Feb 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
lesser uses her chapters as parts of lit she reads for and likes, or doesn't: character and plot ; space between , that is gaps or detachable parts, she uses many examples like dickens characters,how they have detachable parts, gaps between 'you' and 'i', doubts, confessions, non-chronological stories, lies etc ; novelty ; authority ; grandeur and intimacy ; elsewhere, which deals with translations and other elsewheres ; inconclusions (she hates them) ; and a final afterword on books as physical ...more
Guinevere Mare
Aug 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: couldn-t-finish
The title is apt: "Why I read," with the emphasis on I. This book reminded me why I didn't major in English. I have no patience for an authority figure (be it an author or professor or critic) telling me what I should think about a book. Or, worse yet, what the intention of a writer may be at any point during her process. I was expecting less literary criticism, more existential warm fuzzies from this one, so I dutifully let myself be lectured for a couple chapters then dropped it like a tedious ...more
Jul 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I like it when I read a book that is beyond my expectations! Though I think that the book title should be “Why I read Literature: the serious pleasure of books”, because the actual title is too general as if the author is going to talk about any or every genres.
Wendy Lesser way of dividing each chapter and analyzing each theme and character in a novel, short story or poem is beyond my expectation even after reading the titles of the book chapters and knowing what it will be about. I would defin
Apr 09, 2017 rated it liked it
A decent treatise on classics that move us and literature that provides pleasure, Why I Read offers a roadmap for worthy literature with its list of recommended novels in the back itself worthwhile to look over and the rest of the book also a gem.
Oct 28, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: reviewed, nonfiction
Originally published at: A Girl that Likes Books

First impression

On my first shopping spree at Book Outlet I saw this book; I liked the cover and the premise seemed interesting. Wendy Lesser is a critic, a novelist and also an editor so it was appealing to me to hear, or rather read, in the words of someone who is so into the field that is reading, why reading is such a pleasure and I will admit I was curious to see if we had similar points. From the beginning of the book I realised this was more
Jan 11, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2014
Why I Read reads a lot like a thesis, because it's so serious and filled with serious literature. Yet, even though it read like a school thesis or a scholarly journal article, there was just something incredibly interesting about it at the same time. I found myself alternately amused, interested, skimming, and completely relating to what Lesser had to say.

Even though it was heavy with facts and quotations from classic novels, Wendy's writing just balanced it out perfectly. She had many quotable
Jan 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
from Chapter Four, "Authority":

...The point of all this is that literature can never be *just* a trick. We need to feel that something more is at stake, that something is truly being created where nothing was before...It would be inaccurate to say that autgoritarian works command while works with authority persuade, for even the word "persuasion" is too blinkered, too end-achieving, too personally manipulative to cover the methods employed by the most powerful literature. (But the words "method,
Wendy Lesser is the founding editor for the American literary magazine The Threepenny Review; she is lucky enough to spend her days with books. She is a bibliophile with a lifetime of reading experience to offer as well as an eclectic taste. Why I Read is a collection of essays that explores Lesser’s thoughts and ideas on literature in through the lens of different topics like character and plot.

This sounds like the type of book I should love and it ticked all the right boxes for what I look for
May 21, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014-reads
I enjoyed this. It reminded me of Francine Prose on reading like a writer and Lesser's earlier Rereadings, but not James Wood or Sven Birkerts so much. Her obligatory list of 100 books to read is silly, though - she limits herself to one book by each of her chosen authors but spends 3-4 pages writing caveats and explanations for the brevity of the list. Why not just list more?

Interesting discussion of Murakami's translators Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin - now perhaps I understand why A Hard-Boil
Jeff Swystun
Aug 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Before consuming Lesser's work I had solid notions of why I read. Of course, to learn and be entertained are given equal weight. From there my motives become more personal. I know that for some people reading is a chore best avoided. To these folks, I can only encourage the effort because I believe it is worth it. Reading is meant to be a challenge. Anything that presents difficulty often returns incredible rewards. And besides, skimming short, simple works impact one’s intellectual growth or so ...more
Oct 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I was browsing in a bookshop, and picked up this book and started reading it in the middle- to see what it was about. From its title you would expect a dry treatise, but this book is anything but. Lesser’s chatty and engaging style had me hooked from the start. She manages to articulate what it is that makes a book memorable, what makes a book ‘literary’, and it was a pleasure to read. Literature:
"The only requirement being that the book be well-written enough to last through multiple readings,
Anna Louise
Jan 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
The author, Wendy Lesser writes in her prologue, “Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it.”

Here the reader will discover a definition of literature that is as broad as it is broad-minded. In addition to novels and stories, Lesser explores plays, poems, and essays along with mysteries, science fiction, and memoirs.
Jan 14, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: literature, chronics
I give this book three stars because I really liked the introduction. It was very easy to identify with this lady and how she feels about reading. She explains how books give her immense pleasure, and how she reads for no other reason. But after that great beginning, she embarks on a series of explanations of theoretic literary topics such as theory of the plot, theory of the characters and the like. She gives a couple of interesting examples, but in the end the book turns really dense and opini ...more
Feb 04, 2014 rated it liked it
I was a bit surprised that I liked this so much . . . at first I was groaning a bit about how much she discusses some strong classical literature, but the conclusions she reaches are brilliant and entirely relatable. I skipped over some parts (the part

about translations--not my thing) but especially enjoyed her thoughts on character & plot, and grandeur & intimacy. It's very reflective--a pleasant quality given the subject matter.

"For we are plotting creatures, we humans, and we like to
Apr 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Wendy Lesser, the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, shared her adventures in reading in a new way. Instead of a list of books and why they were great, she described the process of reading and divided it into chapters: Character and Plot, The Space Between, Novelty, Authority, Grandeur and Intimacy, and Elsewhere. I was impressed at how much she had remembered from her favorite authors; something I would aspire to, however I'm sure she has re-read many of the titles. The discussion of ...more
Jan 19, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-books
This little book . . . seemed much longer. I just could not get into it. Usually I'm so excited to read another reader's thoughts on books, but this just seemed dry, non-impassioned. I don't know why, exactly, but something about the tone and the way the author chose to discuss the books just didn't reach me. I have another book on my shelf by the same author and am wondering now whether to bother.
Britta Böhler
A bit too 'scholarly' for my taste, but that's probably just me. Some very interesting comments on the art of translation, and on character and plot. More suited for (aspiring) writers than for readers.
Jan 20, 2014 rated it liked it
I love to read books about loving books. It's very validating. But this one is rather scholarly so it's a bit like reading literary criticism and not as enjoyable as I'd hoped.
Veronica Juarez
Jun 04, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: los-abandonados
It was a promising book, at least a promising title, but I just couldn't go to far, it turned boring and pretentious.
Jan 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
Perhaps this book suffered for being read immediately after the wonderful The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading. Whereas The Shelf was an emotional response to reading, this is very much an intelligential one. There is nothing wrong with that; I liked that the author touched on such points as plot and character and the way language is used to push and pull at the reader. My problem with this book is that Lesser comes across as such a snob; nothing is good enough to count as l ...more
Kasey Jueds
Jan 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I am in love with Wendy Lesser's brain. So much so I want to read pretty much every book she discusses here, even the ones I'd never heard of or that didn't previously interest me. In Why I Read, Lesser employs a technique I adore, though I can find it incredibly irritating elsewhere: she addresses the reader directly, uses "you" and "we" and "us." With other writers this can be super pedantic, annoying, even abrasive, presumptuous. But here: it just works for me, beautifully. I feel included in ...more
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I actually got a lot of inspiration from this book. She mentioned many books that I have heard of but never attempted reading. Her bibliography at the end of books she loves I think will stretch my own reading choices. She also inspired me to read more carefully and that rereading is part of enjoying a book.
David Young
Jan 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
I was a bit suspicious as I approached Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 212 pages). It’s not that Ms. Lesser—founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, author of nine previous books (including one novel, The Pagoda in the Garden), and a prolific literary critic herself—lacks the credentials to write a long, meditative study of the passion she has made her career. (Quite the contrary; I can imagine few more qualified than her.) Rather, I was w ...more
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What is reading for? 1 5 Oct 01, 2014 09:55AM  
Mansfield Public ...: Summer Reading week 2 1 10 Jun 30, 2014 03:26PM  
Book Keeping: Why I Read by Wendy Lesser 3 11 Jan 30, 2014 01:48PM  
  • The Library Book
  • A Reader on Reading
  • Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments
  • My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop
  • Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World
  • Phantoms on the Bookshelves
  • A Little History of Literature
  • One for the Books
  • The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
  • A Passion for Books: A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Love and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books
  • Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
  • Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books
  • A Reader's Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year
  • Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home
  • Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture
  • By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review
  • The Novel: A Biography
  • Memoir: A History
Wendy Lesser a critic, novelist, and editor based in Berkeley, California.

She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

More about Wendy Lesser...
“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.” 5 likes
“The slight, the facile and the merely self-glorifying tend to drop away over the centuries, and what we are left with is the bedrock: Homer and Milton, the Greek tragedian and Shakespeare, Chaucer and Cervantes and Swift, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and James and Conrad. Time does not make their voices fainter, on the contrary, it reinforces our sense of their truth-telling capacity.” 3 likes
More quotes…