Why Do You Read?

May 2022


Taking on the literary monuments

Recent Nonfiction

Why Joy?

by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

         I doubt I’m alone in having welcomed spring 2020’s shelter-in-place order as an opportunity to try a challenging book. By challenging, I mean one that threatens to prove slower or duller than the briskly-paced contemporary novels that usually occupy my free time, or a classic that I’m less eager to read than to have read. The book I chose from my shelves was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I had purchased but never opened for a college course over forty years earlier. Now I resolved to savor it, though for all its psychological complexity and verisimilitude it neither swept me along nor stirred my emotions, and left me impatient for it to end. When it did end, I realized that my interest—from starting it, to sticking with it, to taking pride in completing it—derived mainly from its reputation. When Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the words of his biographer Robert D. Richardson, “opposed the passive ingestion and approval of canonical texts just because they were famous,” he could have been talking about me.

            In an interview, the novelist Michael Cunningham describes his reaction to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which, he says, “I’d come to think of as a book I’d spend my entire life intending to read.” He begins it in circumstances similar to mine: “I was alone, last May and June, in a fairly remote place in Portugal, and I realized that if ever there’d be a time and place, this was the time and place.” Motivated by a combination of obligation and curiosity, Cunningham appears to have received only intermittent pleasure. He calls the novel “fabulous and impossible….I adored it on some days and hated it on others. I threw it across the room, twice.” He doesn’t say whether the adoration outweighed the disgust, but sounds disinclined to repeat the experience: “How many of us, in 2020, can devote two months to reading one book every single night, all the more so when it’s a book that can be transcendent and can be exasperating?”

Recent fiction

By Ilya Leybovich

Image by Joshua Cole

From The Archives

by Katie Battaglino

By Michael Milburn

The Challenge of Reading

Podcast, Vol. 1

Michael Milburn talks about his essay, "Why Do You Read?"

Recent fiction

By Max Blue

From the Archives


fiction from MH15

by Gwen Namainga Jones

Recent Fiction

by Wood Reede

MH PodcastMichael Milburn
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