Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nothing Remains the Same by Wendy Lesser

Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, had the good idea of rereading certain books she'd read as a student to see how her perceptions of them had changed. She studied literature as an undergraduate at Harvard and as a graduate student at Cambridge and the University of California, Berkeley. She's published ten books, most recently Why I Read: The Serious Pleasures of Books (2014). Nothing Remains the Same (2002) was her sixth book and she was in her late 40s when she wrote it.

I mention her age because it is significant. Lesser compares quite candidly her youthful reactions, thoughts, impressions of books to her thoughts now twenty or thirty years later. She impressed me because she could remember the books she discusses so vividly. I am not sure I could say anything about any book I read in my teens and twenties.

(Not entirely true. Not long ago in a used book store I found a novel by Philip Wylie, Opus 21, which had so dazzled me as a 17-year-old I wrote Wylie a fan letter. I could not recall any details of the story, and when I reread it I could not imagine what on earth I'd thought was so wonderful. Perhaps the apparently glamorous life of a freelance magazine writer, but on rereading it I found it totally preposterous and mystified by my 17-year-old self.)

I was also impressed by the works Lesser discussed. To name only those I have never read (and thereby expose myself as a literary ignoramus): Portrait of a Lady, Don Quixote, Alexander Pope's "Epistle IV: To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington," The Education of Henry Adams, Anna Karenina, The Idiot, the short stories of D.H. Lawrence, The Winter's Tale, Paradise Lost, Huckleberry Finn, A Hazard of New Fortunes. What makes Lesser's "blend of autobiography, literary analysis, and self-analysis" (Oliver Sacks quote) so delightful is that you do not have to have read the books to understand and enjoy her comments. 

Nothing Remains the Same makes me want to finally read some of these classics, to read more of Wendy Lesser's works, and to reread some of the books that I can recall.

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