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Happy reentries into fictional worlds

Reading Life: Books for the Ages
By Sven Birkerts
Graywolf , 256 pp., paperback, $16

Grand claims for literature -- and for reading -- go way back. Shelley called poets the world's unacknowledged legislators. Borges imagined paradise as a library. And the critic Sven Birkerts, in his new collection of essays, declares that "reading, the mind's traffic in signs and signifiers, is the most dynamic, changeful, and possibly transformational act we can imagine."

These grandiose claims for literary activities should always be greeted with suspicion, especially when they come bristling with such lit-crit mumbo-jumbo as "signs and signifiers." A writer who thinks reading is more dynamic or transformational than sex is not one I am dying to read, particularly when he shows up with a collection of literary criticism, a genre that is to literature what cholesterol is to arteries. As one of our best - known and most sensible literary critics, however, Birkerts is entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and it's a relief to report that his "Reading Life: Books for the Ages" eventually repays our indulgence by means of its good taste, good temper, and lovely prose.

The animating idea of this collection is for the author, a lecturer at Harvard, to revisit some of the fiction that has meant the most to him over the years, responding to it anew from the perspective of middle age. One of the ways Birkerts earns our forbearance is by choosing not just excellent but also interesting works with which to renew his (and our) acquaintance, including "The Catcher in the Rye," "Pan," "Women in Love," "Madame Bovary," "Humboldt's Gift," "Lolita," "The Moviegoer," "The Good Soldier," "The Ambassadors," "To the Lighthouse," and "The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose." Nor are the safest bets on this list as safe as they seem, for the practical reason that it's not easy to say something new or interesting about a classic.

Unfortunately, Birkerts prevails further on our forbearance with his elegant but predictable opening essay, entitled "The Reading Life." Just as it's boring to hear about other people's kids, it's not terribly interesting to hear about someone else's love of books, all the raptures and swooning and years spent working in bookstores notwithstanding. Will anyone be shocked to learn that the author was a bookish, alienated youth, or that he liked the Hardy Boys when he was a kid? Similar news flashes include word that reading books changes people and the remarkable discovery that when you re read a book years later, it seems different, probably because you're different: "I was often surprised, going back, to find the work had grown fresh again, full of unexpected turns and nuances."

But never mind all that; once he gets going, Birkerts is an excellent partner in the worthy project of exploring how the joys of literature and the ups and downs of life mingle so magnificently. The author writes about books not like a novelist -- which he isn't -- but not so much like a critic either, approaching them instead from the blessed perspective of a deeply cultivated reader. About the immersive powers of a successfully rendered fictional world, for instance, Birkerts is right on the money: "This self-contained density helps explain to me why I can't just take up one new novel after the next. . . . Because entering a new force field is taxing, requires a certain giving over of the self, not only in the sense of suspending disbelief on behalf of the narrative premise, but in terms of acclimatizing the self to a new atmosphere. The transfer has to 'take.' We all know the difference between reading with and against the grain, following the sympathies versus exerting the will."

With one or two exceptions, the author's mature re-encounters with the books he covers are equally persuasive. His experience of "The Ambassadors" is especially winning. Despite Birkerts's pride as a young man in checking off one classic after another, he admits that he could never get past the beginning of Henry James's opaque account of a middle-aged American dispatched to Europe to retrieve a wayward youth. Now, in his 50s, close in age to the book's tepid protagonist, Birkerts manages to hack his way through the Jamesian thicket and even emerges with something interesting to say about the experience (although he can't quite bring himself to say what really needs to be said, which is that "The Ambassadors" is a work of almost unrelieved tedium).

A highlight of these essays is the personal context the author provides for his first encounters with these books. It was as a lovelorn high school student in Michigan that he first "gulped down" Knut Hamsun's "Pan," a brief and savage novel of love and obsession. He initially read Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" while working on a ranch in Montana, and came to it a second time in his 30s while teaching a summer class at Harvard , after abandoning his dream of writing novels of his own. He found Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift" -- and it was a gift -- in 1975, while killing time before making a doomed journey aimed at salvaging a shattered relationship. "Humboldt" is Birkerts's favorite novel, he acknowledges, and this essay alone, with its exquisite mix of heartache and insight, enthusiasm and awe, is worth the price of "Reading Life."

Birkerts is terrific on Nabokov and most of the others as well, and disappoints only on Walker Percy, whose "Moviegoer" get praise but emerges underappreciated nonetheless. (Few books can give the lie to Randall Jarrell 's famous formulation that a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it , but "The Moviegoer" may well be the exception that proves the rule.) I also have a bone to pick on Virginia Woolf, whose "To the Lighthouse" is the subject of a thoughtful essay in "Reading Life."

My problem is that Birkerts's sensitive reading strikes me as entirely too chaste, perhaps befitting a man who, as mentioned above, considers reading more dynamic and changeful than sex. I'll admit, though, that he's probably a better judge of Woolf (and Flaubert and the rest) than I am, and that sometimes, at the end of the day, a lighthouse really is just a lighthouse.

Daniel Akst is the author of "St. Burl's Obituary" and "The Webster Chronicle."