Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser

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Authors: Wendy Lesser
This, I think, is a flaw in his novels, particularly Austerlitz , which purports to be about someone else. A similar flaw afflicts an even greater writer, Franz Kafka, whose strongest works are almost unbearable because of the airlessness of their self-enclosure. Roberto Bolaño is an author who risks exactly this charge and then triumphs over it. Finally, it is not that all his creations are projections of himself, but the opposite: in his novels, he becomes a mere figment of his characters’ reality, a shadow in their dreams. Like the French surrealist poets he so admires, he carefully sets up the trick mirrors, constructs all the cunning aesthetic parallels, assures us that he is playing with us—and then smashes the whole construction to bits. When the dust clears, all that’s left (but it is more than enough) is a moment of true feeling.
    *   *   *
    The desire to innovate is not what lies at the heart of books like these. If it were, they would feel much flimsier, morally and aesthetically, than they do. In each case, the author’s primary aim is to reveal the truth, and the novelty of form is just a by-product of that aim. This is the paradox that lies behind formal inventiveness: you can only achieve an exemplary kind of novelty if it is not, primarily, what you are trying to achieve. 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 truth-telling does it become significant.
    To tell the truth in literature, each era, perhaps even each new writer, requires a new set of authorial skills with which to rivet the reader’s attention. We are so good at lying to ourselves, at lapsing into passive acceptance, that mere transparency of meaning is insufficient. To absorb new and difficult truths, we need the jolt offered by a fresh style. Yet what is startling at first eventually hardens into either a mannerism or a tradition. Even Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” if read too early and too often (in a classroom setting, say), can come to seem a mere example of Satire. So every writer—every good writer, every writer who really has something to say—must figure out for herself a new form in which to say it. The figuring need not be conscious, and the innovation need not be dramatic or obvious; we can be affected by style without necessarily perceiving the sources of the effects. But if we do perceive them, they cannot detract from our sense of the writer’s seriousness (a seriousness that, in the case of an innovator like Mark Twain, may partake of a great deal of humor). The structural and stylistic eccentricities must seem—and be—essential, not merely ornamental.
    Take Moby-Dick , for instance. Reading that novel (if it is indeed a novel, and at times I have my doubts), we do not say to ourselves, “Oh, that Melville is such a show-off.” The informational chapters that interrupt the tale, the ones with titles like “Cetology” and “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales” and “Jonah Historically Regarded,” do not strike us as expert research fetched up by the super-smart Melville from his vast library of whale knowledge. There is no Melville here. He has faded completely into his story, becoming “a nonentity, like Shakespeare,” as William Carlos Williams astutely put it. The grandeur of Moby-Dick stems partly from the fact that it seems larger than any individual author—larger than the self-described Ishmael who is supposedly telling us the story, but also larger than the real author we know must lie behind him. (But we know it only with the purely rational side of our brains: we do not feel it, just as we do not feel Shakespeare pulling strings behind the stage, nor Milton directing Adam and Eve toward their predestined fates.) It may seem tedious at times to plow through the masses of information that punctuate Captain Ahab’s quest for the great white whale, but eventually we

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