Reading writers' diaries so often feel beside-the-point, but this volume of Sontag's notebooks, following her from ages 16 to 30, is gorgeous just as a reading experience unto itself. You don't need to have read Sontag's essays or be deeply familiar with her work to enjoy her journals, although they will be a salve if you've ever found her work 'dry' or 'cold.' Here is the feelingsy flip-side of the intellectual, the ephemera of a genius's day-to-day. High points: Susan Sontag at 16, after just having sex for the first time, discoursing on life. Sontag at 20, married, with a two year old. Sontag in Paris, hopelessly in love with a woman who spurns her. Sontag, reading.
I've taken much solace, in wake of current circumstances, reading this lengthy interview circa 1978. It's relatively light, but in context even that is a flood of introspection and perspective that puts '16 in digestible illumination.
Part study of the beautiful relationship between two famed School Poets, part in depth analysis of ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun On Fire Island’ this ‘thought experiment’ is unique in its approach. Johnson’s theory that Frank O’Hara’s most famous poem wasn’t written by him at all feels like a mashup of Anne Carson, a lit-crit review, & a modernist, deeply academic, murder mystery novel, ultimately begging the question: does it matter who wrote it?
Nelson Algren was one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century (I implore you to please read Man With the Golden Arm alongside this extraordinary biography.) As Colin Asher explains, the reason you've likely never heard of, let alone read, Algren, is due to the interference and harassment of the FBI, the sheer extent of which has not been known until now. Algren is a prime example of a talented communist artist of the 30s and 40s who was punished, hounded, and driven into obscurity by the machinations of the Red Scare in the 50s. A beautiful book in and of itself, this biography of Algren should also be vital reading for writers of today's left.
You've finished Moby-Dick and you want to keep riding the high. This is how. A century after Moby-Dick, Charles Olson traces Moby-Dick's real-life and literary origins. Melville and Olson inhabit the same weather-beaten New England literary realm, and this groundbreaking text is infused with the trademark style that made Olson a cult classic American poet. Among the most interesting ideas explored is how there are two Moby-Dicks, tied together by Hamlet.
LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, and the life of John Keats all rolled into one - sealed together by the unknowable logic of real life and the unshakable generosity of two brilliant minds. The purest book you'll read this year.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Marcel (But Were Afraid to Ask). Albertine-Erotics for People in a Hurry. How to Win the Prix Goncourt and Influence (Many, Many) People. Call it what you will, but Edmund White's compact biography is perfect for the uninitiated reader, and for those who have lost some time over Proust already, it provides a focused lens through which to further understand the enigmatic man and his singular work.
It's always nice to discover that one of your favorite writers is also a decent human being. Meeting Fitzgerald via his letters felt like the opposite experience. Fitzgerald's disdain for the distractions he himself was unable to resist becomes clearest in the letters to his daughter, Frances Scott. Overbearing, relentlessly critical (and written with his usual flair for the perfect cadence) they show his concern that she not embrace a world of cheap thrills and "beautiful little fools." What makes this so compelling is that Fitzgerald could well be talking to himself.
An attentive excavation of the affinities linking the Harlem Renaissance to its French contemporaries, and a robust argument for a radical literary internationalism.
A book about translation, which is to say that it is really a book about writing, the act of creation, a meditation on reading. Briggs digs deep into the idea of what a translation is, from her own translation of Barthes, to the contested translations of Thomas Mann and Han Kang - she helps you understand how the way you move in an aerobics class is a translation of the aerobics instructor, and the way that 'papadum peach' is a perfectly valid translation of 'papa don't preach'.
Essential reading for those who've ever used an alphabet or fallen in love. This is literary criticism for the impassioned, who are seized by the need to write romantic notes, songs, and poems, but are also curious to understand why they're doing so. The answers are traceable to the very birth of writing.
Quietly the best thing Kafka produced. Highlights include that the diary is his dream journal, and that it is often difficult to tell when it is serving that purpose. A book to dip into at random. Best read in the dark or in the fog.
A fascinating and mind and life, treated with love by a dedicated and skilled biographer. As much as one person can ever become expert in another, Moser has done so here, fully immersing himself in Lispector's history and interweaving it with her work, as those things, for her, were inseparable. Reading this book, I felt intimately connected to the life of a woman who died nearly a decade before I was born, in a country I've never visited. I gained a fresh, variegated understanding of her works, which I had already grown to love, and had thought I knew well -- overall, this was a delightful, surprising, and captivating reading experience.
Great lit knows of the great passions but what of the feels in between? The ones that fuel, say, everyday life in a great capitalist city like New York? The palpably hushed affects inspired by a stuffed subway stuck between stations, or an indeterminately rank sidewalk, or your second bike stolen this year. Raise denied, catcalled, Wall Street guy's real nice leather loafers. Accidentally ordered the wrong green juice, no cabs when it’s raining, tourists dumb-skipping the four-lane line at Whole Foods. Is my skin as bad as Dr. Zizmor mirrors? Will she text for a second date? Debt collectors got your work number! Shit. Envy, irritation, anxiety, paranoia, disgust—how ugly do you feel today?
An academic but completely readable investigation of the relationship between form and meaning.
Not only one brilliant, innovative NY art-world writer telling the life-story of another brilliant, innovative NY art-world writer, this book seems to me essential reading for anyone who writes, or wants to write, or is a woman, or lives in New York, or has been alive in the last fifty years. Basically everyone.
A book written over a lifetime, destined to be treasured throughout yours. Brilliant, witty, dreamlike and endlessly insistently sexy, this is Nin meets Robbe-Grillet, Pessoa with a libido. It's easily one of the best books of this or any other year.
A delicate work, of life through translation. It's amazing to think that an understanding of hegemonic American wars could be gained through a book ostensibly about poetry and lit in translation. One of the weirdest works I've read since Valeria Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth: equally indefinable, far less maddening, more warming.
Open this book to any page, read any entry, and you will find a beautiful account of something Henry David Thoreau saw in nature once. From comparing the way ice clings to different types of trees to meditating on the behavior of frogs, fungi, and everything else, Thoreau’s journal will make you want to find the nearest patch of woods and sit in quiet observation of the amazing and diverse forms that life takes on our planet.
A fire demanding kindling. Burn, baby. Burn.
With his signature mix of academic precision and laconic humor, Critchley portrays tragedy as not only a literary genre but a mode of experience. We're always struggling with uncertainty and moral ambiguity, conspiring with our fate without even knowing it, and haunted by a past that refuses to die. Part historical exploration of how theater was produced and consumed in classical Athens, part ethico-philosophical treatise on the impossibility of the Platonic dream of a thoroughly intelligible and navigable reality, Critchley's book makes the world of the ancient Greeks feel surprisingly close to ours.
You thought you knew what camp was. But did you know that a Tiffany Lamp is camp, while a garden gnome is kitsch? We have Susan Sontag to thank for being so keenly interested in a seemingly benign subject that we now understand its meaning thoroughly and exactly. Now go watch some nunsploitation.
Hey, remember how women aren't just minor characters in men's stories? Johnson's memoir is a thoughtful and fascinating literary coming of age story set in 1950s New York, as she fought against the prevailing idea that women couldn't be worthwhile writers. Johnson also happened to be dating a certain writer when his book On the Road made him famous overnight. Read this for background on the Beats if that's your thing, but also read it for Mary Karr, Yoko Ono, Hettie Jones, Joyce Maynard, and other women artists who have been cast as onlookers to a man's genius.
For the dude in your life who worships at the pillar of Miller’s priapic prose.
Dispatches from the unfathomable depths of Rilke's empathy. How did he know that you, yes, specifically you, were someday going to need these letters?