A Year in Reading: Lydia Millet

December 19, 2012 | 2 2 min read

coverRoland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which I first read in college — doesn’t everyone? — and reread this year piecemeal, in five-minute snatches between bouts of chasing my children, did more concrete good for my way of reading than many other books. I realized, reading it again, how it had changed me; I saw at age 43 what it had done to me at age 19.

Its form and its content were both revelations, back then — its form because it was beautiful and abstract and I hadn’t read much in that vein before that didn’t bore me; its content because I’d never before understood that love is more about its subject than its object. That may seem elementary to smart people over the age of 18, but it wasn’t elementary to me at the time: I lived in a longing, teenage-girl world of German and English romantic poets, with a little surrealism thrown in.

With Barthes I could retain my romanticism, because of the beauty of his language, but also I could contain Freud, I could contain, for the first time, a knowledge of how my egocentric self made up its narrative arc of love, how desperate I was to love myself by telling a story about loving others.

What Barthes also did for me, because I wasn’t versed in theory, was persuade me that I could read well without reading perfectly, that part of reading should always be failing to understand. I know now that whenever I read a book I believe I’ve understood perfectly, a terminal failure has occurred — a failure either of my imagination or the author’s. For reading to be successful it should know its own failure as it goes along, live with perpetual, familiar failure and see that failure shine.
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has written more than a dozen books of literary fiction, most recently a novel called A Children’s Bible (W.W. Norton, 2020). She works as chief editor at the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization dedicated to fighting climate change and species extinction.


  1. I loved reading about Barthes talking about love. Another contributor recommended A Lover’s Discourse last year and I took him up on it. Should not be missed.
    It also reminds one that you are not solitary in your heartbreak. The experiences you think are unique, are not. And there is healing to be found in sharing the knowing with examples from great fiction and from others’ recountings.

  2. Lydia’s observation about our fallibility as readers, “that part of reading should always be a failure to understand”, is dead on, I think. Our willingness as big tent readers to sample a broad variety of literary styles and cultures comes with the certainty that not every beautiful or inspired work will be intellectually clear. She says it better than I.

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