The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’


June 10, 2013 | by


“[T]o read was precisely to enter another world, which was not the reader’s own, and come back refreshed, ready to bear with equanimity the injustices and frustrations of this one. Reading was balm, amusement―not incitement.” —Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance



What We Wish We Were: On Biopic-Mania

May 23, 2013 | by


Sometimes there are things you didn’t know you wanted to see.

Like Michael Douglas, spangled and rouged, arms out in a white ostrich-trimmed cape, prancing sideways across a Vegas stage. This is barely two seconds of the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, about the relationship between Liberace and his younger lover, Scott Thorson, but those are two seconds I want to see over and over.

Usually I get cranky and snide about biopics. The last one I saw was Hitchcock. I went to have my prejudices against the genre affirmed, and they were. I kept watching Anthony Hopkins in his fat suit and thinking about his makeup, the boom just outside the frame, the camera rolling back on its track, the contrivance of the whole thing—and not in some provocative, Brechtian sense. I left full of scorn for the labored verisimilitude and regurgitated history—a petty way to go to the movies, but kind of satisfying, too, in the way that being petty can be.

Maybe it’s a good film if you weren’t aware Alfred Hitchcock had a thing for so-called icy blonds and that he got creepily obsessive when it came to his leading ladies. And if that’s not clear from watching Hopkins/Hitchcock skulk around dressing rooms, Jessica Biel/Vera Miles explains it to Scarlett Johansson/Janet Leigh and us in a scene that feels more like a DVD featurette about the “making of” than dialogue between two people. Read More »



December 27, 2012 | by

Chris Killip, 'The Library of Chained Books,' Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, UK, 1992.

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.

“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”

There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.

There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More »


Radical Chic

September 6, 2012 | by

Ida Wyman, Spaghetti 25 Cents, New York, 1945, black-and-white photograph.

One day in late March, I took some pictures of the crowds of protesters in Union Square, newly arrived from Zuccotti Park. The week before, more than seventy protesters had been arrested, and the Union Square encampment evicted in a fashion many Occupiers described as gratuitously violent. Ramarley Graham had been killed about a month before, and the racially-charged practice of stop-and-frisk was asserting itself into mainstream consciousness. Trayvon Martin was now a household name. And since the previous August, one revelation after another had surfaced about the NYPD’s secret Muslim surveillance program. So people gathered on March 24.

Tall, glittery women milled about with signs that proclaimed SOCIAL JUSTICE IS FABULOUS!, at one point posing for a picture with veteran progressives whose cardboard sign read PROTESTING IS NOT A CRIME IT IS A RIGHT!. One man held a white square above his head with red Chinese characters and their English translation in black: PROTECT HUMAN RIGHTS. PEACE FREEDOM DEMOCRACY. A LONG WAY TO GO. A young guy pontificated, a lit, dripping, handmade candle his microphone. A “naughty policewoman” balanced on the toes of her ice skates, legs angled and baton in hand, her sign saying something about police wiping their collective ass with the Constitution. Former Police Captain Ray Lewis promoted the documentary Inside Job, while the Hare Krishnas, gathered in the square as usual, sang and danced in full force.

These pictures, I didn’t realize at the time, would be lost. Innocent of their fate, I took photographs that day as most people do, with the idea that this was not a test.

Thirty minutes after leaving Union Square, I arrived at the Jewish Museum, where “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951” was on view for its last day in New York City. (The exhibit is currently at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, set to travel to San Francisco and West Palm Beach.) And while the sparse grandeur of Museum Mile was in contrast to the teeming crowd of Union Square, the trajectory felt logical. Read More »


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?


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.


What We’re Loving: Girls, Cribs, and Literary Detective Work

May 18, 2012 | by

How often have you read a TV review by a writer of our generation and thought of Susan Sontag? It's never happened to me—until this week, when I read Elaine Blair’s review of Girls in The New York Review of Books. By paying attention to one little sex scene, Blair makes deep arguments about sex scenes in general, the limits of romantic comedy, and the real meaning of sexual freedom. —Lorin Stein

About a decade ago, my friend Mikey loaned me a book he thought I’d enjoy. I’ve only just got around to picking it up. Though I’m a bad friend, he isn’t: the book—Leonid Andreyev’s The Little Angel—is terrific, after a fashion. The stories are intriguing, especially “At the Roadside Station” and “The City," but the translation is rather bad. I’d love to see it revisited by another publisher and translator. I’m looking at you, NYRB Books. And how about Natasha Randall? I loved her translations of We and A Hero of Our Time. —Nicole Rudick

For those with a green thumb and a love of literature, look no further than Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation Across Two Centuries for an insightful glimpse into garden writing over the last two-hundred years. Lush illustrations color the pages and accompany extensive excerpts from the writings of influential figures of gardening’s past and present, such as Thomas Jefferson, Gertrude Jekyll, and Michael Pollan. Gain a little inspiration for your own beckoning plots, or simply get yourself excited for summer’s peak. —Elizabeth Nelson

Read More »