Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 223 pages ($25). One can be breezing along through Wendy Lesser’s personal explication of the ABCs of reading seriously for pleasure when one encounters this showstopper on Page 78: “Consider James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ This is a novel that has always gotten on my nerves. I admit that part of what is annoying is how much other people love it and praise it when it leaves me completely cold. I vastly prefer the author of ‘Dubliners’ and even the slightly pushier fellow behind ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ to the highly self-conscious innovator who wrote ‘Ulysses.’ By the time he reached that point, Joyce has begun to congeal into the artist who would produce the nearly unreadable ‘Finnegans Wake’ and the obvious source of the rot was his overweening desire for a great literary reputation. (His) one enormous wish (was) to be the greatest, most impressive writer of his generation. This is not a literary impulse but a self-promotional one, and you can sense it in every chapter, every line of ‘Ulysses.’ ”
She’s not even remotely finished. As for Molly Bloom in “Ulysses,” Lesser heats up about 10 degrees and says, “Don’t get me started. If I hate anything more than the rest of the book, it’s that ridiculously orgasmic Molly Bloom soliloquy with which Joyce concludes – a ventriloquist’s dummy masquerading as a character. Reading her breathy Yeses, I can hear her all-too-evident author congratulating himself on his literary genius.”
In that passage you can hear the author herself telling you that as joyfully literary as she’ll always be, she’d rather be a kumquat than a nice docile 20th century-style academic. Not since Virginia Woolf publicly chided Joyce for (metaphorically) squeezing his acne in public has a female writer kicked such a shibboleth so gleefully down the stairs.
Remembering Woolf’s distaste for “Ulysses,” one recognizes this wonderfully personal intro to the elements of reading as an update of Woolf’s postulation of the Common Reader. Lesser’s previous book subjects have been everything from Shostakovich’s String Quartets to The Male Gaze. She’s the founder and editor of the Threepenny Review and a delight here.
– Jeff Simon