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the Complete Review
the complete review - reading

Why Read ?

Charles Dantzig

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To purchase Why Read ?

Title: Why Read ?
Author: Charles Dantzig
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 244 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Why Read ? - US
Why Read ? - UK
Why Read ? - Canada
Pourquoi lire ? - Canada
Why Read ? - India
Pourquoi lire ? - France
Wozu lesen ? - Deutschland
¿Por qué leer? - España
  • French title: Pourquoi lire ?
  • Translated by Renuka George

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Our Assessment:

B+ : reading-passion, in its many variations; nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 6/10/2010 Emmanuel Hecht
El País . 30/12/2011 Alberto Manguel

  Review Consensus:

  From the Reviews:
  • "Si, en ouvrant ce livre, on ne sait pas pourquoi on lit -- en particulier Pourquoi lire ? -- on se fait vite une raison: pour le plaisir de la digression. Charles Dantzig est le genre d'homme à ne pas suivre la direction qu'il a indiquée." - Emmanuel Hecht, L'Express

  • "Dantzig, apasionado lector cuya fe en el libro fue revelada en Una librería me salvó la vida, arma aquí una antología de formas y razones de lecturas, muchas originales y certeras, unas pocas disparatadas, algunas arbitrarias, todas interesantes. (...) Dantzig no propone un recetario sino un catálogo de ejemplos que, en su rol de lector particular, ofrece como posible modelo a sus congéneres." - Alberto Manguel, El País

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: This review is based on the French original; I have not seen Renuka George's English translation and all the translations are my own.]

       Charles Dantzig is, as soon also becomes clear from this book even to anyone unfamiliar with him and his writing, a great reader -- enthusiastic and tireless, as well as incisive. The title may ask: 'Why read ?' but this is not an essay weighing pro and contra: not reading is an almost unimaginable state for Dantzig, and instead he offers here the many reasons that one can and should and would want to engage in this activity. Why Read ? consists of several dozens of short, often digressive pieces in support of reasons to read, with only the antepenultimate piece truly considering 'Pourquoi ne pas lire ?' ('Why to not read ?'); unsurprisingly, even what he offers there is less a discussion of a complete forsaking of reading than a collection of a few exceptions: times and occasions when one might hold back from picking up a book (right after sex, for example), or when one should put one aside, at least for a while (to take time to reflect, especially, he suggests).
       The reading Dantizg focuses on is 'literature' -- as he notes, the question he is posing is, more accurately: "pourquoi lire de la littérature ?" -- and primarily fiction at that. He shows relatively little interest in non-fiction -- poking fun at the British passion for literary biographies, as if the artist's life-story could explain their (to Dantzig, much more interesting) art. Similarly, Dantzig goes to pains to emphasize that one does not read for edifying purposes or in the hopes of some sort of personal improvement, unconvinced that reading can make us 'better' in some way beyond, perhaps, at the margins: "un salaud ne restera pas moins un salaud après avoir lu Racine" ('a miscreant won't be any less of a miscreant after having read Racine'). Indeed, although Why Read ? is full of reasons why one might (or should) read, Dantzig avoids most anything that reeks of purpose -- and, also, insists that: "Lire, ce n'est pas bien" ('Reading is not good'), per se; he doesn't like it being sold as a salutary activity (and don't say it is to the kids (or adults, too), he adds). (One suspects that one of the reasons why no US/UK publishers picked up this book is because of the entrenched self-help expectations in those countries: if a book is not instructional, promising a path to something better, (and Dantzig's certainly isn't) then what's the point ?)
       What Dantzig focuses on, and shows in so many variations, is the sheer pleasure of reading, of losing oneself in books. As he puts it so nicely (in that chapter on 'Why to not read'):

Car enfin, tout le temps que nous lisons, nous sommes comme le serpent devant le flûtiste.

[Because ultimately, whenever we are reading, we are like the snake in front of the snake-charmer.]
       He nicely captures how the pleasure of reading involves a complete giving-in to the work, beyond simple plot. Defending Albert Cohen's Belle du seigneur he beautifully expresses it:
On ne lit pas un livre pour une histoire, on lit un livre pour danser avec son auteur.

[One doesn't read a book for a story, one reads a book in order to dance with the author.]
       Why Read ? is a personal take, and Dantzig frequently writes of his own experiences, inclinations, and attitudes, from learning to read (indignant as a five-year-old that he had to wait until then to be introduced to this grand new world) to his dislike of flying (though he likes having flown ...). Quite a few books and authors are mentioned and discussed -- including an appreciation of and riff on Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader -- but Dantzig actually doses this quite carefully: Why Read ? doesn't try to overwhelm with lists of great and worthy reading-matter -- as Dantzig is making the case for reading in general, and doesn't just acknowledge but rather emphasizes that many different kinds of books allow for the experience. So also he even admits to indulging in some more popular fiction -- though, while he admits a weakness for vampire-novels, he drew the line at Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (she's apparently no Anne Rice).
       The personal is often amusing, and nicely tied in with the larger project here. He discusses how he had long avoided reading Lacan, for example, put off by the author's reputation, in the chapter on reading books despite (rather than because of) their authors (which continues nicely with an entertaining riff on reputation and French attitudes and more). Among the few pieces that don't quite work is one on bookstores, which tries to pack rather much in and, in describing how he visits bookstores wherever he goes and then giving examples from around the world, falls a bit flat with the too-easy target of unknowledgeable booksellers and, for example, a somewhat odd and limited selection of New York bookstores as examples (he didn't like the Gotham Book Mart -- which closed at its original location seven years before this book was published, and for good in 2006) -- though he's not entirely wrong in comparing bookstores in Manhattan to fireflies, extinguished one after the other.
       Why Read ? isn't a book to convince reluctant (or -- horrors ! -- non-)readers of why they should devote their time to literature. It doesn't make the case for what is to be gained from reading, and how you could benefit from reading, beyond incidentally. Instead, it's a book for those who already are enthusiastic readers, a validation of their passion -- from someone as passionate as them, or more so. Dantzig's complete obsession might seem over the top for those who don't get it -- but readers understand, and will appreciate the ardor with which he makes his case (and his excuses ...), and the wonderful variety of takes on offer. It also helps that, beyond having read an enormous amount -- thus allowing him to pluck apposite examples left and right -- he also is a fine stylist, with a knack for the well-turned phrase; aside from everything else, it's simply a pleasure to read his writing.
       Why Read ? is not a defense of reading -- Dantzig doesn't see it in much need of defending -- but rather a celebration of giving oneself completely to reading (literature), Dantzig contagiously reveling in it. With its narrow focus -- truly, entirely on reading (rather than say also extending much to the book-as-object fetishization widespread among book-lovers) -- it's a very enjoyable and clever book of variations on this wonderful theme and activity.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 January 2020

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Why Read ?: Reviews: Charles Dantzig: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Charles Dantzig was born in 1961.

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