First of all, I just have to mention to whom it may concern that the French literature section of the library needs some attention – eventually. But there’s no hurry; absent its current state of breathtaking disarray I’d have missed the happy hazard of picking up Charles Dantzig’s 2010 book Pourquoi Lire?. There I found it, carelessly crammed in face down on top of other books, not far from the gap once ostensibly occupied by the book I’d gone there to find, Dantzig’s Encyclopédie Capricieuse du Tout et du Rien (Capricious Encyclopedia of Everything and Nothing). And while clearly something should be done, I’m not altogether ungrateful for the mess. Pourquoi Lire? answers its own question by ranking among the most purely enjoyable books I’ve read this year.
A book with this subject almost inevitably invites a kind of one-off approach, as the author’s task here is fairly straightforward: muse about the many aspects of books and reading; season generously with personal likes, dislikes and displays of erudition; and serve warm. Conceived by a less adept and versatile mind (and there are more than a few lesser books on the subject floating around out there), Pourquoi Lire? could have become a negligible bagatelle. But Dantzig belongs undeniably to that international union of “grands lecteurs” for whom his book will echo down the long, disarrayed stacks of their own reading, someone who reads widely and deeply, has strong opinions, and presents them with exceptional charm, insight, humor, and even, on occasion, a sober and moving depth.
I had a passing familiarity with Dantzig as a result of another chance encounter, having been given, a few years ago, his enormously ambitious and physically enormous (nearly 1,000 pages) Dictionnaire Egoïste de la Littérature Française. An American friend, knowing my interest in French literature, picked it up on impulse while in Paris. I’ve read it piecemeal, dipping into it at random; it’s one of those books that lends itself to such haphazard reading (and thus has found a more or less permanent place on the insomniac’s bookshelf next to my bed, along with assorted poetry collections, The Thurber Carnival, Vincent and Mary Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes, and naturalist Donald Peattie’s lenitive, gently soporific A Natural History of Western Trees, with its sylvan, ensorcelling Paul Landacre woodcuts).
Dantzig’s response to his ostensibly simple question – through 75 plus brief essays, many of which come off as new elaborations on similar entries in his idiosyncratically entertaining Dictionnaire - begins by noting his own accidents, those he causes by literally (literarily?) bumping into people while reading as he walks. While not all of us read quite this dangerously, a great deal of what Dantzig writes about will resonate with anyone who appreciates literature. While a few of his observations seem altogether obvious to any bibliophile, others appear familiar only in the sense in which surprising discoveries are sometimes those lying about in plain sight.
Dantzig’s dissections of various aspects of reading range from the almost predictable (Reading the Classics, Reading to Learn, Reading for Consolation, Reading to be Articulate), to others a bit more unanticipated (Reading to Make Friends, Reading Bad Books, Reading for the Titles, Why Not to Read), to quite a few – wading deeply into Dantzig territory here – far more decalé (Reading to Get Past the Half-Way Point of the Book, Reading for Discovering What the Writer Didn’t Say, Reading for Masturbation, Reading Like a Flower, Reading So As to No Longer Be the Queen of England).
A genial, palpable passion for literature in its many manifestations infuses these essays, which address not only the reading of novels, but also such topics as reading aloud, reading interviews and dramatic works, and literature’s survival in the age of the electronic text. Through the lens of reading, Dantzig offers up opinions on contemporary culture both high and low, from the facile vacancy of much contemporary text/image art to “neither good nor bad, just blah” consumerist literary products like the Twilight vampire books of Stephanie Meyer, to the threats to literature posed by the ascendency of anti-intellectual, semi-literate political reactionism fronted by figures such as “clownesse” Sarah Palin. Dantzig also playfully incorporates a number of images into Pourquoi Lire? – photos, cartoons, paintings – including a moving chapter on various artistic and photographic depictions of persons reading (and not reading), and another, with less charitable before-and-after photos, on reading facial wrinkles.
One of Dantzig’s more pointed mélanges of the familiar and the unexpected is the chapter Reading on Airplanes, which presents a by now completely standard and tiresome catalogue of complaints about the malaise of air travel – the indignities of security queues, the absurdity of spending almost as much time at the airport as in the air, the banality of airplane interiors, the obsequious adult infantilism of in-flight service – followed by a strikingly resonant symbol for the devolution of the glamour of air travel (at least for those of us of a certain age who first visited New York during a certain epoch). After discussing several literary works that concern the romance of flight, Dantzig continues:
There wasn’t even a need for books. The names of the airlines themselves were poetic enough: UTA, BOAC, TWA, Pan Am. Pan Am! In New York there was the Pan Am Building, planted behind Grand Central Station, its famous logo way at the top symbolizing the glory of commercial air travel. Since it’s became the property of as joyless an entity as an insurance company, no one obtains any pleasure by raising his or her eyes towards The MetLife Tower; in fact, one experiences a kind of shame in reading those words, as though, I imagine, one felt shame at reading German words on the signs of occupied Paris during the Second World War.
It almost goes without saying that there’s a particularly French angle to Dantzig’s book, perhaps one reason he has remained - unjustly - untranslated. Some of the writers he discusses and quotes, such as Paul Léautaud and Jules Barbey d’Aubervilly, may be familiar chiefly to those with a background in French literature. However, most are household, international literary names, and Dantzig’s observations tend towards the universal, making Pourquoi Lire? appealing beyond its slight franco-centrism (though it’s also clear that Dantzig’s literary tastes tend to the fairly traditional and canonical; while the book makes no pretensions to thoroughness, there’s an almost shocking absence of attention paid to emerging writers or writers from outside of Europe or North America).
One element that enhances Pourquoi Lire?’s charm and appeal is Dantzig’s engaging and conversational narrative voice, at once an invitation into a commonality of readers and an acknowledgement of an almost ready-made conspiratorial intimacy among bibliophiles and lovers of literature. Additionally, piquantly noting that “the reader goes to bed with her reading,” Dantzig maintains, throughout Pourquoi Lire?, an acute focus on that creature with two backs represented by the integral interaction of reader and book:
We read selfishly, but we arrive, involuntarily, at an altruistic result. In reading, we’ve brought back to life a thought in deep sleep. What is a book, if not a Sleeping Beauty? What is a reader, if not her Prince Charming, even though he wears glasses, has a bald spot, and is 98 years old? A closed book exists, but it’s not alive. It’s a rectangular parallelepiped, probably covered with a fine coat of dust, empty like a box can be empty. Each act of reading, one might say, is a re-creation. Mallarmé exaggerated when he maintained that each reader was the creator of the poem. “Re-animator” would have sufficed. We’re big enough people to admit that, as important as the role of the reader is, he isn’t the one who created the work.
In the end, through this focus on reading as an act of love and reanimation, Dantzig succeeds in distilling the essence of the importance of reading to its near total impracticality, that its value lies exactly in its serving for nothing. Or rather, the reading of literature serves for nothing other than as a bulwark and act of resistance against the forces of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, anti-relativism, incuriosity and vacuity, and, ultimately, as a check on our final simplification, through its capacity for restoring life’s “adorable complexities against the marionettes of death.”
At one point in Pourquoi Lire?, Dantzig notes (while discussing Stendhal, clearly a favorite writer, as he is in the Dictionnaire, and reason enough for my finding Dantzig such a sympathetic guide) that gaiety – particularly when it comes with an acid point - is a rare commodity in literature, that for this reason such books should be venerated like treasures. Veneration might be a bit too strong a word in this case, but Pourquoi Lire? - gay, engaging and delightfully pointed - should have little trouble cozying in on the shelf among the literary treasures that helped inspire it.
(Pourquoi Lire?, by Charles Dantzig, Editions Grasset, Paris, 2010, unfortunately not yet translated into English; translations above are my own).