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Ask The Paris Review

What Books Should I Read to Impress a Guy?

June 24, 2012 | by

Margaux Williamson.

After a week of guest-editing, I leave you with this piece of advice from Canadian extraordinaire Margaux Williamson. À la prochaine mes Parisiens! —Thessaly

 

Dear Paris Review,

Sadie Stein recently answered this question in your advice column. And now I’m wondering: what books impress a guy? What should I read to seem cool, sexy, and effortlessly smart? Seriously.

Sincerely,

Needing to Impress

The answer to this question all depends on how long you need to seem cool, sexy, and effortlessly smart for. If it’s for a one night stand, or for a decent favor, don’t waste your time on reading (that’s not cool!), just go ahead and lie about what you’re reading. If you see some dumb, over-praised book on said guy’s top shelf, you can ask what they think about it and then say, Oh yeah, totally. You can put that book on your imaginary top shelf too or imagine that you regret putting it on your imaginary top shelf. Lying can be real if you imagine successfully.

This lie can be a kind of empathetic gesture, an openness, a pose you can hold to see if you like something new. But this kind of lie is only advised for the short-term—don’t forget that it is only a trick! Can you imagine having to carry on with someone else’s interests for a whole week? Or longer?! Imagine having to pretend forever that you care—or even worse, forgetting that your interests didn’t start off as your own?—growing all sorts of wrong trees in your soul.

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19 COMMENTS

Dear Paris Review, What Books Impress a Girl?

June 8, 2012 | by

Dear Paris Review,

Someone sent me this text message yesterday: Whats a book I should read to make girls think I'm smart in a hot way? I want to seem like a douchey intellectual instead of my deadbeat self. What should I tell him?

Sincerely,
A

Dear A,

The correct answer is probably that your friend should be secure in his tastes, find someone who loves him for who he is, and not worry about impressing anyone. Many movies have demonstrated the pitfalls of posturing and the inevitable public unmasking that follows. That said, our job here is to try to answer questions, and as such, I took the unusual step of soliciting a range of answers from both men and women.  (My own immediate response was to offer the following formula: worst book of great author, a gambit that men of this type also apply to albums, i.e. Metal Machine Music, which they will claim is underrated.) Then too, there is the dual nature of the question: Does the author wish to come across as a poseur for some reason, or attract a woman of substance?  If his goal is (inexplicably) the former, the female contingent offered the following names: Madness and Civilization; The Power Broker; Žižek (any), The Brothers Karamazov. (All worthy reads, needless to say, but often used for ostentatious or intimidating purposes.) And, added one, “I like DFW, but he’s the novelist equivalent of a neg.”

As to books the women whom I spoke to found appealing (and please note that this implies actual reading, not use as props): At Swim Two Birds, The Beauty Myth, “any book read twice.” Elaborated one: “Extra points for Martin Amis memoir, minus points for other Martin Amis nonfiction. Someone who actually appears to be reading William Gaddis for real and not just carrying it around will always rate a second glance. And a straight man reading Mary Gaitskill would be nearly irresistible to me.”

When faced with the same question, male correspondents provided the following terse responses: “Cantos, Pound.” “Kathy Acker.” “Sontag.”

Portnoys Complaint,” said one, “may as well be Yiddish for douche.”

Others were more expansive. “How about Laszlo Kraszahorkai’s Satantango? It’s ostentatious, hip, handsomely designed (looks great on a bedside table), and comes with seals of approval from Sontag, Sebald, and James Wood. It is also, for the most part, unreadable.”

Gravitys Rainbow, all the completed Caro LBJ books, Brothers Karamazov. But if you really want ‘I am a brooding intellectual with an effortless knowledge of contemporary culture,’ I think Matterhorn is tough to top.”

“There’s a difference,” remarked one colleague, “between getting a girl to think you’re smart, and getting a girl to WANT to talk to you. The following are books that will make girls want to talk to you.

—Greatest pick-up book of all time is Just Kids by Patti Smith, because every girl has read it and they ALL want to talk about it.
—Any book ever written by Haruki Murakami
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
White Album by Joan Didion
What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. (Don’t question it. Just trust.)”

And in corroboration, one fellow says: “If it means anything, the only time a girl ever sat down and started talking to me out of nowhere was when I was reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem in college.  Didion has an effect on people.”

Take this for what it’s worth, and we hope you actually find a book you love in the process.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.

90 COMMENTS

Improving Writing, Finding Happiness

May 18, 2012 | by

How do I improve my prose?

The poet and diplomat Paul Claudel once wrote, “To beware the adjective is the beginning of style.” I ought to have written “the French poet and diplomat” or “the great French poet and diplomat,” because sometimes an adjective is a helpful thing; it is easy to take such advice too much to heart. On the whole, though, Claudel is right: most prose gets better if you take out all the adjectives (and adverbs) that you can.


Hello, I have recently started reading your most wonderful publication, and I really like your recommendations based on books people have already read! Thank you for this and keep up the good work! Now, to the question about life, I put forth this question to a friend but he didn’t respond, maybe you can help? I’m happy with my life as it is today, but there is no joy of existence! I’ll try to explain this a little, for all that I have I still feel my life is incomplete! Can you help?

P.S. I have varied interests, wonderful family, friends, comforts, and all this keeps me happy, and busy, but that feeling of incompleteness always remains!

Thank you for your kind words about the Daily! Unfortunately, your question is beyond our pay grade. So I sent it to my mom. I half expected that she would tell you to meditate and drink fewer martinis, but then (as she says), she doesn't know you. Her response follows!

Your question about achieving true joy triggered an image of little Flora in Dickens’s Dombey and Sons. Never has there been such a joyful and generous creature. Then came Scrooge, after he learned that joy and generosity of spirit are inextricably linked. It seems to me that Dickens is onto something. I don't know you, so it's hard to say how you will find joy, but I would imagine that if you reached out beyond your family and friends—maybe to tutor a child who needs it, or read to someone in a nursing home, or even just give a ten-dollar bill to the next homeless guy who asks you for money—you may find that a certain amount of joy has been there all along, and you might begin to get the hang of it.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.

15 COMMENTS

Walking While Reading

May 11, 2012 | by

I’ve been reading a few things lately on the subject of walking, including treatments philosophical (Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Thoreau’s “Walking”), narrative (Walser’s The Walk, new from New Directions next month), and poetic (O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and some Wordsworth). I’m thinking of writing an essay on the subject and noting that my list so far consists of only dead men. Can you recommend any writers who are female and/or living who have written about walking?

Rebecca Solnit is female and very much alive. You should start with her Wanderlust: A History of Walking. And if city walking interests you—or the subject of walking with one’s mother—you will want to read Vivian Gornick’s modern classic, Fierce Attachments.

As it happens, I’m in the middle of a brand new book about walking: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert MacFarlane. I keep saving it for bed to make it last. The American edition won’t be out until October, but the British edition comes out early next month; if you can possibly wait for it, I would. You will want to read MacFarlane, above all for the wealth of his references, but also for the unabashed, Norsey music of his prose:

I’ve read them all, these old-way wanderers, and often I've encountered versions of the same beguiling idea: that walking such paths might lead you–in Hudson’s phrase–to “slip back out of this modern world.” Repeatedly, these wanderers spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way. Bashō is said to have told a student that while wandering north he often spoke with long-dead poets of the past, including his twelfth-century forbear Saigyo: he therefore came to imagine his travels as conversations between “a ghost and a ghost-to-be.”

With so much to read out there—and more being published all the time—how do you find the time to get through it all?

Please don’t quote my actual name.

Dear “Stefan” (not his actual name),

You’re mixing me up with Kurt Andersen—and I have no idea how he gets through it all. I get through almost none of it. It just sits there on my desk and table and shelves, glowering, until our interns box it up and take it to the Strand.

But the nice thing about books is that they don’t go anywhere. The good ones keep.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.

12 COMMENTS

Job Aspirations; Forgiveness

May 4, 2012 | by

I am a student interested in working for The Paris Review one day. What steps would you recommend to get there?

Read lots. That’s the main thing. And not just the books they assign you in class. The Daily gives you a pretty good idea of what books and articles we’re reading; at the very least you'll have something to talk about in the interview. (You should read The Paris Review. Maybe this goes without saying.)

Learn to write. I don’t mean “creative” writing, I mean short-form journalism. If your school has a good student newspaper, sign up. Or start sending pitches to your favorite magazines. The main thing is to write for an editor who can help you improve—tightening sentences, taking yourself out of the picture when you don’t belong, that kind of thing. Being able to write short, competent reports is a surprisingly useful skill—and one that we value here.

Bump one of us off. The Review has only six full-time employees, so job openings are rare. But we do accept new (unpaid) interns every season: click here for more information on how to apply.

We’re honored by your interest!

I’m working on a character who is trying to figure out secrets in his family and still hold it intact … I've been reading Albert Camus’s The Fall and loving it, but wondered if you might have any other suggestions for literature dealing with themes of forgiveness to help out with some inspiration?
Much Obliged

Dear Obliged,

The first title that pops into my head is Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? Then I hear Henry James: “Yes, and forget her, too.” James wrote lots of novels about forgiveness. The Wings of the Dove, which I have never made it through, The Ambassadors, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Altar of the Dead all turn on acts of forgiveness. If your subject is forgiveness in marriage, you may be inspired by Norman Rush’s Mortals or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief. Then there are Jonathan Franzen’s last two novels, Freedom and The Corrections. Forgiveness is a big subject in Franzen’s work, though critics don’'t often point it out. The Corrections is less about marital forgiveness, more about how hard it can be to forgive one’s parents and kids. Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment has to do with forgiveness in divorce. D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers has to do with forgiveness between mothers and sons; Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage has to do with forgiveness between Geoff and D. H. Lawrence ... For some reason everywhere I turn today, I see people asking to be forgiven and trying to forgive. Maybe you can’t go wrong.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.

1 COMMENT

Light and Diabolical; Coming Off the Beats

April 27, 2012 | by

Dear Paris Review,
I’ve just finished
Dr. Zhivago and am on the hunt for a palate cleanser. I’ve been left with romance on the mind and would like to stay in this vein. I don’t want to go too lowbrow, like toward trashy romance novels, but something as light and diabolical but still classy and well written would be nice. Any suggestions?
Thanks,
Olivia

Romantic, diabolical, and light—it’s a tall order. But Ivan Turgenev’s First Love rises to the challenge. So does Terry Castle’s long story-essay “The Professor” (the whole collection is a knockout), ditto the title story in David Bezmozgis’s collection, Natasha (ditto the collection). You might also want to see my staff pick for this week, Goodbye, First Love.

In case you’re still jonesing for epic: Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus isn’t exactly light, but it clips along, and it’s romantic with darkness. Then there’s the book that Sadie and I seem to recommend more than any other, not (in my case) because it’s my favorite, but because it’s excellent and so often fits one bill or another, as indeed it fits this one: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

As a nineteen-year-old writer, struggling against ego and literary giants that marked an era (the Beats), sick of the droning whir of academia, and thirsting for life. What should I read to have me excited about life, about writing.

Thank you,
Connor Goodwin

Ah, to be nineteen and coming off the Beats … I’m tempted to recommend the work of our Southern editor, as for example his collection, Pulphead. There’s a book that knows the Beat tradition, that knows academia, that knows the myth of the great author and quietly steers its own path through those perilous straits. It may give you encouragement. The same is true of The Savage Detectives. Or, if you want a more classic antidote to literary machismo, To the Lighthouse. Or for sheer life affirmation and prose descriptions that make you burst out laughing, they’re so good: Death Comes to the Archbishop or The Adventures of Augie March. Read More »

6 COMMENTS