Wendy Lesser's 'Why I Read' Triggers the Introspective Side of the Reading Experience

I moved to New York in late October of last year, just a few weeks after returning from Berlin, a city which, during my three weeks there, had stolen my heart. There are many cities I like, and many more I do not, but never had I loved a city until Berlin. The transition to New York was a hard one.

I moved just as The New York Times and other outlets were publishing pieces about how writers were fleeing New York en masse, that after several-year love affairs with the city, they found New York was much too fickle, and expensive, a mistress. I couldn’t understand this love affair narrative. The city seemed wrong. Men and women had come to live out their dreams here, in this harsh, unforgiving city — it makes sense to me that Manhattan is a city built on rock — but except for the extraordinarily lucky, seeing one's dreams actualized rarely occurs, and if it does, this dream life often doesn't feel the way you expected it would. Living in an idea wears on you.

Around this time I found myself rereading Teju Cole’s Open City, a beautifully written novel I had initially “read” for a college course, but wanted to revisit to give it the attention it deserved. I found myself reading about a world I was experiencing first-hand, and in a very similar way. The narrator, a young doctor struggling with the isolation of city life after his girlfriend moves away, explores the strange loneliness of moving through New York’s peopled public spaces.

I was experiencing the same things, reading passages about this character sitting on the train alone while I was on the train alone, or reading about the tides of foot traffic on Sixth Avenue with “its rush-hour gladiators testing each other’s limits,” only to exit the subway and endure the very same. (I work off Sixth Avenue in Midtown.)

This is one of the many reasons I read. Literature provides me with the words for my own experiences, which I like because I find articulating a moment gives me a sense of ownership over my life, even if that sentiment is somewhat groundless.

Personal reasons like this one are featured in Wendy Lesser's Why I Read (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The book reads like an impressively literate reader's journal arranged thematically, in the categories of character and plot, the space between, novelty, authority, grandeur and intimacy, and elsewhere. These categories provide a gateway for Lesser to explore the very essence of fiction, which she is weary to define concretely, though she nevertheless provides a compelling account of its magic.

For Lesser, reading is admittedly a "compulsion" as well as a source of pleasure, and sometimes a means of escape. In her chapters, she recalls memorable characters, author's insights, and creative innovations. She is agreeably non-dogmatic about her project; it is obvious she has tried hard to be self-aware of how her own tastes influence her thoughts in writing this book. The questions she asks, therefore, are not answered resolutely, but she provides suggestions for answers.

There is, however, one point on which she stands fast and hard. She insists that fiction must be truthful— not factually, but emotionally or essentially truthful: “If there is anything I hate when I am reading a book, it is the sense that I am being lied to.”

This point might raise objections from some, because, in some ways, fiction is ultimately a lie. But fiction's truth is something she, and I, feel deeply. I didn't finished rereading Teju Cole's novel. I found it to be "too real" — which is funny, because I'm reading a story about things that never happened and someone who never lived. But that, ultimately, is the power of fiction, as Lesser sees it. It speaks to us despite its origins. It is a lie we live in, and live through.

With three months between me and my first impressions of the city, I would like to tell you I've come to a better place in my relationship with this city. I would also like to tell you I picked up Cole's novel again, or that I'm planning to sometime in the near future. But I haven't. Instead, I find myself reading stories set in England and Ireland, two of my favorite destinations for literary escapes. Perhaps it's too soon for me to read about New York; perhaps once I no longer live here I'll gobble down Cole and Bellow and Roth and all the other New York greats.

I think my fictional departures from New York are a good thing, though. It brings me away from myself, allows me to see a very different world through someone else's eyes. This is, as Lesser puts it, "one of the most salutary things about reading." I do not see my failure to finish Open City as a failure at all, but a decision to allow fiction to do what it does best: remind me that what goes on in mind is just a single thread, or perhaps even a single stitch, of a tapestry. And reading about other stitches is far better for my mood.

Image: Richard Rizzo