Why read?

asks Laura Miller in yesterday's The New York Times Book Review. She means "Great Books" as distinct from, say, instructional manuals on how to cook a meal, or improve our communications, or renew our faith and so on, that people read for more or less practical reasons. Her answer is that "Solitary pleasure is finally the only real reason for reading..."

No, that's not quite right. Crossword puzzles, computer games and pornography are for solitary pleasure. If I read mainly for pleasure, I wouldn't finish half the things I start. Martin Amis, for example, who is clever but often downright unpleasant. Or Gore Vidal's Creation, which (as I've already said) I found tedious as fiction though full of odd tidbits of historical lore. I think I read mostly out of curiosity. I'm not seeking pleasure so much as clues to what is going on: in literature, in politics, in physics and anything else.

And like anybody who is trying to write fiction, I read other people's stories to find out how they do it, what works and what doesn't. And sometimes I make a startling discovery. For example, now I know why Dave Eggers is so highly regarded! (I hadn't understood why, after reading earlier stories of his.) "The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water" is wonderfully told. It is not just a story but an appreciation of life, of the sensual experience of light, touch, cold, heat, clouds, sex, and the uncaring motion of the waves. It's in Zoetrope All Story 7, 2 (Summer 2003).

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