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A Look at Life by the Book

Rereading classics shows publisher how she's changed

June 04, 2002|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BERKELEY — A few years ago, when Wendy Lesser moved into a rambling Victorian house down the street from the UC Berkeley campus, she spent two days arranging her books. For Lesser, the editor and publisher of the Threepenny Review literary journal, this was no casual task.

"I can't live someplace until the books are in some kind of order," she says. "I don't ever like to be without a book."

Later, she still wasn't satisfied, so she rearranged the books. Nonfiction ended up downstairs in the library, replete with a sliding wall-mounted ladder. So did the novels that her husband and son might want to read. Her personal favorites got shelved upstairs between her bedroom and study, where the desk is as immaculate and well-ordered as her books and prose.

Then one day about three years ago, something unlikely happened. Lesser couldn't find anything to read. She scanned her shelves and pulled out a copy of Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady," which she had read twice before but had not looked at since her days as a graduate student two decades earlier.

The book turned out to be new and exciting in ways Lesser could never have imagined.

"I used to be tempted to skip ahead," she writes in the recently published "Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering" (Houghton Mifflin). "I now wanted to saunter through the commas, linger at the semicolons, and take small contemplative breaks at the periods. The book was much better than I had remembered it. More to the point, I was a much better reader of it. Both pleasure and understanding came more easily to me."

After James, Lesser picked up another old volume to read again. Then a third. She wanted to see how they--and she--had changed with the years and soon realized there might be a book in the experience of rereading.

Lesser says the experience taught her something she never knew before about literature. "Books change over time," she observes. "So there's no point in making absolute statements about 'best' or 'favorite' or whatever, because time will alter these things."

Rereading, for Lesser, also turned out to be about reliving. "I learned a great deal about myself," Lesser adds. "More, I think, than I would have if I had just tried to remember my youthful self without the help of books."

In a chapter about D.H. Lawrence, she writes: "What we read is an aspect of the life we have lived, and shapes our subsequent life, and becomes part of our memory of the past.... We should be willing to allow our personal and historical responses to flood in and out of the books we read ... the bringing together of books and life is pretty much unavoidable, if you really want to immerse yourself in the pleasure of reading."

That last line pretty much sums up Lesser's biography: the bringing together of books and life.

She grew up in Palo Alto with her divorced mother, Millicent Dillon, who later wrote novels and a biography of writer Jane Bowles. Her father worked as an engineer for IBM but wrote on the side about computers and sailing. "We were the weird family on the block," Lesser remembers. "My mother was a dance therapist and freelance journalist."

At 6, Lesser began devouring stacks of science-fiction magazines that her father had left in the garage--a discovery recounted in her 1999 memoir "The Amateur," which is as much about the books she read as the life she's lived.

At 11, she read "Don Quixote," the first novel she tackles in the new book. "I could not love Don Quixote more than I did at 11," she writes, "but I can admire it more now."

She went to Harvard and was about to go to law school at Yale but took a detour to study English at Cambridge, which led to a PhD at Berkeley. In 1980, while still a graduate student, she started the Threepenny Review in her apartment. The review is still published from the same apartment--a block away from the house she eventually moved into.

The review is a small but revered publication. Early contributors ranged from a then-economics student at Stanford named Vikram Seth to Gore Vidal.

The current issue of the quarterly tabloid features a symposium on W.G. Sebald, an essay by Michael Holroyd on the art of biography, a movie review of "Mulholland Dr." and art by Curro Gonzalez.

"I wanted it to bridge a lot of different art forms, to be somewhere between academic and popular writing," Lesser says. "We get hundreds of manuscripts every week, and a lot are terrible. Every once in a while we find a terrific writer. That's great."

For the first decade, Lesser supported the review with second jobs. In recent years the journal, which in a good year has 10,000 subscribers, breaks even, with about half of its revenue coming from grants from institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts.

"I used to cry every three months when I had to pay the bills because there was no money in the bank," Lesser says. "Some years I still pay myself only $10,000. In a good year, the review will pay half of my income."

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