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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Why I Read

Jim McKeown

An interesting excursion into the mind of a reader, writer, and inveterate “book smeller.”


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Every once in a while, I come across a book about reading.  Recently, I reviewed Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch after reading George Eliot’s classic Victorian novel.  Francine Prose wrote, Reading Like a Writer for another example.  Now Wendy Lesser has added to this collection with Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books.

According to the dust jacket, “Wendy Lesser is the founder of The Threepenny Review, [an outstanding literary magazine].  She is the author of eight previous books of nonfiction and one novel.  She has written for The New York Times Book Review, and my favorite The [London] Times Literary Supplement.

Lesser divides the book into convenient categories; however, my favorite proved to be “Afterword: The Book as Physical Object.”

Her style is chatty and actually fun.  She opens her prologue with, “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 in someone else’s words.  To exercise my critical capacities.  To flee from the need for rational explanations” (3).  Although I never given it much thought, these are all reasons I read.

When I was about 6 or 7, I was already an avid reader.  I wanted more of what my mother would share with me before I lay me down to sleep each night.  One day, I asked my Dad where he learned all the things he did.  His one word answer, “Books,” hooked me and raised me from avid to voracious.

When Lesser starts a new book, she tells us, “I open the cover and sniff the pages before I even start to read.  I always think the smell of that paper goes with its feel, the tangible sensation of a thick, textured, easily turnable page on which the embedded black print looks as if it could be felt with a fingertip, even when it can’t” (188). 

She also brings the interesting idea of the layout of a printed book.  She writes, “someone who remembers specific passages in the spatial way I do – as in ‘I think it was on the left-hand side of the page, not more than two or three pages before a chapter break’ – becomes lost in the amorphous, ever-varying sea of the digital page” (189).  She mentions the conveniences of tablets and e-readers.

When she finished one book, she “held the pleasant weight of the closed book for a moment in my hands, as if to bid its story a silent goodbye, and then I turned it over” (204). 

Wendy Lesser and I are kindred spirits.  We both have the same devotion to the printed page in all aspects: vision, touch, smell, and, of course memory.  Get a copy of Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books and explore in detail your love of reading.  5 Stars. 

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!