“Nothing takes you out of yourself like a good book does,” writes Wendy Lesser, the Berkeley-based editor of the literary magazine The Threepenny Review. In her new book, “Why I Read,” she explores the pleasures, sorrows and surprises of nearly 60 years of reading. She joins us to talk about her favorite authors, and also why (in this age of smartphones and YouTube) books are still worth our time. What are your favorite books? Which books do you still reread, again and again?

Wendy Lesser on Her Five Recent Recommended Books:

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li:

"This novel is at the pinnacle of her stories, if not better. It’s just marvelous, wonderful, everything. The language is as if she invented it – English – for the first time. It’s all good English, but every sentence has to be read carefully because thoughts are put in a way that you’ve never heard of them before." – WL

The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer:

"[This] is his first novel. It was written back in the 1980s. I’m a big fan of Geoff Dyer and I’d read most of everything he’d written since then, but not this first novel, which is being reissued by Graywolf, this month I think. And I was just so impressed, A. by how good it was, that Geoff was already writing at that level in his first time out, but B. that it contained in embryo all of his later obsessions that worked their way out in other books, like the book on photography or the book on D.H Lawrence, the travel book. All these little things are contained in the book on jazz that comes into this novel. He hadn’t even thought of writing these books yet and yet they’re there in the characters’ interactions and the way they live their lives." – WL

Light and Dark by Natsume Soseki:

"I had read his masterpiece, Kokoro, because a Japanese literature professor at UC Berkeley had given me a copy. This [professor] was a real proselytizer, and he wanted everyone to read this book. And it was a great book, and I’d never heard of Soseki before, although everyone in Japan has, and then this new one, Light and Dark, came out from Columbia, and I ordered it for myself. Of course it’s not new, it was written in 1915 or whatever, but it’s a really great novel of a sort that you don’t imagine if you are like me and you have a certain narrow-minded view of Japanese literature. You don’t think of it being Dostoyevskian in its emotional reach, and that is what Light and Dark is. And like the other novels of his I’ve read, it’s mainly just a little domestic, intimate portrait of a man and his wife and their relationship and then their relationships with their family members on the side and a few work-related people, but the degree of the intensity of the emotion, is amazing, I think. So he’s a great discovery for me." -WL

Watching You by Michael Robotham:

"Michael Robotham is a mystery writer that I discovered within the last month. I’m always on the search for new mysteries, because I use them up. I mean I read them in a day and they’re done. And if they’re a series, all the better. I can go through the whole batch. I started, unfortunately, with Watching You, which is the most recent one. Because that’s the one that Amazon said, oh you would like this, so I bought it. But it turns out that I should have started with The Suspect. I had to pick a recent book, so I picked Watching You for your readers, but let me tell you readers, don’t start with Watching You, start with The Suspect, which is the first in the series and introduces Joe O’Loughlin. And they’re very good mysteries, they’re well-constructed, and the two main characters, O’Loughlin and his sidekick on the police force, Ruiz, are both great characters." -WL

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham:

"The Cunningham novel, which I just finished, I loved so much I’m now acquiring copies to give to friends. It’s called The Snow Queen and it has a little excerpt from the Hans Christian Anderson story at the beginning, but it’s really about some people in New York in the period from 2004 to about 2009 who mainly live in Bushwick and are scrabbling on the edge of existence. But deep and important things happen to them: the deaths of friends, their own spoiled love affairs, a very close relationship between brothers. And bits and pieces of Hans Christian Anderson, like the ice fragment in the eye, which is something I’ve always remembered from those stories, reappear, as images in the book but they don’t intrude in a kind of heavy-handed authorial way. Michael Cunningham just slips them in and then has his characters exist as if they were real people. It’s a very moving book, because the people seem absolutely real." -WL

Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review and author of "Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books"

  • thucy

    “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 tragedians 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.” – Wendy Lesser

    Thank you, God, for a Berkeley-based woman writer who fully embraces the Western Canon (and, apparently, much else.)

    The linked article states that Lesser rejects the “modishly political” – no doubt wisely. But making literature free of politics altogether? After reading Greg Grandin, Andrew Delbanco, and UCB’s own Michael Rogin all weigh in on Herman Melville writing as a reaction against his society, how could one separate Melville from the politics of his era? She surely doesn’t believe Sophocles and Euripides can be read free of the politics of the Pelopponnesian Wars?

  • Cheryl

    With sincere respect for Ms. Lesser and her work, I hope she will address the downside of online book sales and publishing. It is undeniable that publishing houses, which discover and support new authors, are financially eroded by internet sales. It is arguable that the online giant that Ms. Lesser has cited at least twice this morning has kept new authors from support and exposure — where will this end? Can we hear it for bookstores?

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    For small screen-addicted college students, the short story is the ticket ! Also, and especially for addled travelers like me, shorts are digestible while trapped in a plane with naps and interruptions. The Raymond Carver suggestion is right-on as his stories can captivate and certainly stimulate classroom discussion.

  • Robert Thomas

    I have about fifteen hundred hardcover titles in my library.

    Over a period of a few months, reading these without using serious magnifying tools has become a serious strain. I have used electronic aids and formats to make this less of a problem but it’s a poor substitute.

    When I was a kid, my grandmother warned me that my reading posture would ruin my eyes, as hers then were failing

    She was wrong about what would impair my vision but she was right about how much it would confound me.

    • Pontifikate

      How about getting someone to read to you? I realize it’s not ideal, but there are volunteers who do this.

  • Thomas Gonzales

    I’m 25, and when I studied engineering in college, I slowly stopped reading literature in favor of non fiction. I loved much of the reading in high school but am so out of touch with the “literary world.” Where do you think I should start to find literature that will inspire me and open my mind again? In some ways, this coverasation is a little overwhelming and makes me feel bad for not being better read.

    • Fay Nissenbaum

      Quick suggestion for you – here ya go –

      Like you, I read mostly non-fiction, daily news and related items, wikipedia and research related material, how-to tutorials & computer stuff,. The show today reminds all the above is adequate, but rarely written or even presented as well as it could. NONE OF IT is refreshing! To the rescue is literature. Like that caller suggested, charles bukowski’s Factotum or ‘Ham on Rye’. (get either from Black Sparrow Press – gorgeous covers and paper you will want to keep!)

    • Robert Thomas

      I would choose Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Persuasion by Jane Austen.

      Really. I’m an engineer and spend most of my reading hours in non-fiction, too. But thee books (which I came to only after finishing my schooling – a roommate insisted I should read them) remain two of my Towers.

      Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit) by Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, called Céline, was an early wake-up call to me from an idealistic technically-minded person (a medical doctor) wounded by war and the world into a love-hate relationship with everything and everyone. I think it’s the greatest modern tragedy.

    • Pontifikate

      I’d recommend Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, both by Dickens,

  • Glenn Howard


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