Houghton Mifflin (May 2002), $24
People are lousy readers. We keep hoping for that "perfect" reading, during which we gather deep meaning out of every line, but few people concentrate that well, and even fewer writers are worth the effort. Besides, our messy world is too distracting for close reading (just try getting through a Philip Roth novel with a folk guitarist as a neighbor). Perfect reading is a lie anyway -- we tend to cherry-pick the themes and threads we prefer from our favorite books, even if they're not the ones the writer intended us to follow. With that in mind, one of the many pleasures of Wendy Lesser's Nothing Remains the Same is that she cops to all this. Part memoir and part collection of critical essays, it's an engaging, honest, and witty study of how rereading literature reveals our clumsiness as readers.
For Lesser -- who edits the Berkeley literary journal Threepenny Review -- the lesson comes with Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. Instead of caring about the romance plot's specifics, as she did as a teen, Lesser focuses, upon rereading the book, on the psychological whys of the characters' thinking. There's joy in that, she explains: "It meant that something old wasn't necessarily outdated, used up, or overly familiar." From there, she investigates a series of classics -- including The Idiot, Huckleberry Finn, Paradise Lost, and one film, Vertigo. As Lesser grows into middle age, those scribblings in the margins look more naive, but the books themselves gain depth. Her literary understanding of Don Quixote is much better now than when she was 11, sure, but age also offers an emotional understanding: She's more sympathetic to the knights-errant she encounters in real life. With the exception of a meditation on Shakespeare that drifts too deeply into academia, Lesser routinely strikes a balance between scholarly appreciation and self-analysis. It hardly matters whether you've read few or any of the books Lesser mentions, even once. The best writing -- whether Lesser's choices or your own -- reflects your life back to you, often surprisingly; Lesser provides her revelations with a scholar's eye and a belletrist's grace.