A list of essay collections and non-fiction books I’ve read lately:
(Works by the same authors are grouped together, but the titles are in the order in which I read them).
- James Wood:
The Fun Stuff and Other Essays (2012)
- Virginia Woolf:
The Moment and Other Essays (1947)
The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)
On Being Ill (1930)
- Joan Didion:
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
The White Album (1979)
- Susan Sontag:
Against Interpretation (1966)
Illness as Metaphor (1978)
I meant to take a break from reading fiction and from blogging, but perhaps I should jot down a few lines about these reads.
James Wood and Virginia Woolf have always been two of my favourite literary critics and essayists, the others are new discoveries. It is a good thing that I read Joan Didion and Susan Sontag close to each other because Sontag wrote about the culture of the 60s and Didion also wrote about the 60s but focused on the counter-culture movement; Sontag wrote about the theoretical and the abstract whereas Didion wrote about people she met and things she saw.
My feelings about Sontag are complicated—she is undeniably erudite and fascinating, she seems to have read everything in Western culture and writes with lots of authority, and has a strong persona on the page. Against Interpretation is an excellent essay collection and Illness as Metaphor has many interesting points and is understandably popular even if the book as a whole is a bit weak and confusing in its intentions. The problem with Sontag, by which I mean my problem with her personally, is that I blame her for promoting Camp, “bad taste”, and so on, which I see as partly responsible for postmodern art and certain trends in popular culture today, and Sontag has also said some crazy things such as the “white race” comment. It’s also hard to take her very seriously when she likes Marx and Freud and keeps mentioning them in Against Interpretation (even though each of her essays probably mentions about 50 different names).
Joan Didion I do like. I have heard of her for years but never picked up her books—only did recently because I was curious about the joke that all female novelists are compared to Jane Austen and all female essayists are compared to Joan Didion. Like Austen, Didion is extremely popular (and perhaps often liked by the wrong people), which may similarly make her reputation appear suspicious, but she is very good. I like her sentences, she makes me rethink writing. I have very little interest in the 60s and 70s of America, even less in the hippies, but she’s good and I keep thinking about certain images in Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album: image of the orchids, image of the horses and the birds in the Malibu fire, image of people temperamentally affected by the Santa Ana wind, image of the quick weddings and the waiter serving alcohol to everyone except the bride because she’s not old enough to drink, image of Didion herself in bed with a bad migraine, image of the 5-year-old on acid and another kid having almost set the house on fire while the adults in the house don’t notice as they’re trying to retrieve some good drugs that drop through the floorboards, and so on.
Didion has a sharp eye and writes well and selects good, striking images, and there is a rhythm to her prose that I like.
The White Album isn’t as interesting as Slouching Towards Bethlehem in subject matter, but I do love some of the essays in it like the “Women” essays (especially “The Women’s Movement”), “In Bed” (about her migraine, to which I can relate), and the one about the orchids and the Malibu fire.
I should read more from Didion, especially The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.
At the moment, I’m reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Fascinating stuff.