The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading by Edmund White

Rachel Cooke in The Guardian:

Books are so intimate, somehow, and perhaps this is one reason why so many of the current glut of reading memoirs leave me cold. Even as they strain for this sense of disclosure – don’t you feel like this, too? they ask – their tone is proprietorial, hellbent on exceptionality (I love the Brontës even more than you). You would, I think, accept this from a lover, but not from a writer you’ve never met – unless, I will now add, that writer happens to be Edmund White, the tone of whose new book, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, quite often resembles the gentle whisper of a sweetheart. Ownership, you see, is not at all his style. In fact, he doesn’t claim always to understand the books that he loves most. “I’ve read it 10 times, though I’m none the wiser for it,” he writes of Anna Karenina, the novel he believes to be the greatest in all of literature.

White’s book is a collection of essays, each connecting the seemingly thousands of books he has read – I find it impossible to imagine anyone better read than White, though with typical modesty he insists he knows lots of people who are – to his long writing life (the author of A Boy’s Own Story is now 78). This is done in loose fashion; like any passionate reader, he hops “from one lily pad to another”. Colette cosies up to Jean Cocteau, and Penelope Fitzgerald to Henry Green, and you must therefore concentrate quite hard, particularly in the matter of writers with whose work you are not familiar (in my case, these included two of his favourites, Jean Giono and Pierre Loti). But it’s wonderful, too: wisdom and a certain kind of tenderness are to be found on every page.

More here.