Review: Why Read: Selected Writing 2001-2021 by Will Self

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From one of the most unusual and distinctive writers working today, dubbed “the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation” by the Guardian, Will Self’s Why Read is a cornucopia of thoughtful and brilliantly witty essays on writing and literature.

Self takes us with him: from the foibles of his typewriter repairman to the irradiated exclusion zone of Chernobyl, to the Australian outback, and to literary forms past and future. With his characteristic intellectual brio, Self aims his inimitable eye at titans of literature like Woolf, Kafka, Orwell, and Conrad. He writes movingly on W.G. Sebald’s childhood in Germany and provocatively describes the elevation of William S. Burroughs’s Junky from shocking pulp novel to beloved cult classic. Self also expands on his regular column in Literary Hub to ask readers, how, what, and ultimately why we should read in an ever-changing world. Whether he is writing on the rise of the bookshelf as an item of furniture in the nineteenth century or on the impossibility of Googling his own name in a world lived online, Self’s trademark intoxicating prose and mordant, energetic humor infuse every piece.

A book that examines how the human stream of consciousness flows into and out of literature, Why Read will satisfy both old and new readers of this icon of contemporary literature.


Will Self is one of those authors that I have bought his books but have yet to read much of his work. It all started from the hardback cover of Great Apes. I saw it in the store and knew that I had to have a copy. The name Will Self is also aesthetically pleasing, even if, according to some of examples in this collection, it leaves the internet with ammunition to use for when he says something disagreeable. And some of his opinions are disagreeable, especially when it comes to some of his opinions 0on reading. 

In any essay collection that spans twenty years of writing, there are changing opinions. Most of his essays on reading are about digital reading and how it is not as good reading from a screen as it is holding a hardback. He also says early on that if you want to be a serious reader and writer, you have to read and write serious books. He backs down on some of this toward the end of the collection, written in that past few years. The last essay, “Reading for Writers” he states that readers should read whatever they want. He also mentions that readers should read “promiscuously” and how he has several books going at one time. If he reads promiscuously, he chooses to write about white, male writers. It takes the collection 275 pages for him to examine a female writer, Rachel Cusk, in the essay, “On Writing Memoir.” He does mention books by women and marginalized groups in a generic way, but he does not spend the time on any of them. He spends his time discussing Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Karl Ove Knausgaard, J.G. Ballard, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, William S. Burroughs, W. G. Sebald, and a sprinkling of many other male authors. I do not know if this is specific to this collection, but there does not seem to be many indicators that the reading life that Will Self proclaims to be important is very diversified. 

I do like many of the essays, even if some of them seemed a bit like a dinosaur yelling at the meteor, but most of them are fairly interesting. Will Self does write with the authority of someone who stands behind his opinions and essays, even if they are not the most popular perspective. I liked reading his essays about writers and famous works, but I did not care as much for some of his personal essays.  He has completely forgettable essays about skyscrapers and shelving units. In any collection that spans this many years, there are going to be some essays that work better than others, and I would say that for me, this ratio is about half and half. Reading this does make me want to find my copy of Great Apes and see if it is more interesting of a book than Why Read because I feel like I am still supposed to read books by Will Self. 

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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