Reading Life: Books for the Ages

Overview

A new, compelling collection of essays by Sven Birkerts, "one of America's most distinguished, eloquent servants of the poetry and fiction that matter" (Susan Sontag)

Reading, the mind's traffic in signs and signifiers, is the most dynamic, changeful, and possibly transformational act we can imagine. To have read a work and have been strongly affected by it—and then to come back to it after many years—can be a foundation-shaking enterprise.

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Overview

A new, compelling collection of essays by Sven Birkerts, "one of America's most distinguished, eloquent servants of the poetry and fiction that matter" (Susan Sontag)

Reading, the mind's traffic in signs and signifiers, is the most dynamic, changeful, and possibly transformational act we can imagine. To have read a work and have been strongly affected by it—and then to come back to it after many years—can be a foundation-shaking enterprise.

In Reading Life, virtuoso critic and essayist Sven Birkerts examines what it means to return to resonant works of fiction—the books one thinks of "covetously, as private properties," the "personal signposts" of one's inner life. For Birkerts, these include The Catcher in the Rye, Humboldt's Gift, To the Lighthouse, and Lolita. In twelve far-reaching and intimate essays, Birkerts reflects upon his first readings and what later encounters reveal about time, memory, and the murmuring transistors of selfhood.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"To read Birkerts is to hear (and enjoy hearing) the voice of literary conscience." —Seamus Heaney

"Birkerts on reading fiction is like M.F.K. Fisher on eating or Norman Maclean on fly casting. He makes you want to go do it." —Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker

Kirkus Reviews
A literary critic (Readings, 1999, etc.) and professor (English/Harvard Univ.) revisits some novels he read years ago and finds in them both enduring beauty and a sometimes shifting resonance. Birkerts has always been a bibliophagist, from his early days roaming in The Jungle Book and adventuring with the Hardy Boys and James Bond, and he recognizes one of his life's great fortunes-to be able to read and write both for pleasure and profit. Some of the books he re-examines are predictable choices-The Catcher in the Rye, Women in Love, Madame Bovary, Lolita-but there are some surprises, too, both mild (The Moviegoer, The Beggar Maid) and major (Pan and Montauk). He says that Humboldt's Gift is his favorite. Birkerts has arranged these essays in rough chronological order. In adolescence, he was captivated by The Catcher in the Rye and Holden's remarkable voice; at 19, it was Madame Bovary, which he read while working on a Montana cattle ranch. Walker Percy helped him through some tough personal issues (lack of money, among them). He confesses to an inability to read Henry James's The Ambassadors in his youth, despite repeated attempts, and is proud that, at age 52, he finally completed it. The strongest and most engaging essays weave the personal with the literary (his fine piece on D.H. Lawrence, for example). At times-especially when dealing with books more unfamiliar to general readers-Birkerts spends much time summarizing and quoting, and his emotional, provocative voice becomes too faint a whisper. But the author is a remarkable reader, sensitive and alert, and these qualities pervade much of his writing. "Such is the power of memory," he writes of Virginia Woolf, "and such is its humanextent: to create in the person the sensation of vanished circumstance living on." Great novels, in his view, are all books of revelations. Birkerts is a dedicated reader and a novelist's best friend.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555974640
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 3/20/2007
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.99 (w) x 9.14 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Sven Birkerts is the author of Readings, The Gutenberg Elegies, and a memoir, My Sky Blue Trades. He teaches at Harvard University and at the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is the editor of Agni. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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