A book-drunken life: Susan Sontag on Writing

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

Read the rest here.

I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Yup, that’s me! 

And here are a few suggestions for reading in pockets, via PolicyMic –start with the Atwood, because wow.

What are you reading? (Monday 23/52)



  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
  • Longbourn, Jo Baker
  • The Prestige, Christopher Priest

I’ve been loving my recent book choices. Kavalier and Clay was excellent, even though I’m not so much on the comic books, it was so well-grounded in the social context that I (even I!) was interested. And that suggests that it is just about comic books which–on one level, it certainly is, but on another it’s about so much more–about the work of creating home. Longbourn tells the downstairs story of Pride and Prejudice. I’ll admit to never having read another of the Austen spin-offs (perhaps a bit of a snob in this area); Longbourn, however, was well worth the time. Much more Wide Sargasso Sea than Austenland. I may perhaps have a bit more to say about this in the future. And The Prestige was really very solid. It probably would have been shockingly good, had I not already known the big plot twist from the movie, but there are enough twists that, even though I was familiar with the broad strokes of the plot, there were still surprises. Strong, but not perfect.

Currently Reading: 

  • The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
  • The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Audible)
  • Queer Phenomenoloy: Orientations, Objects, Others, Sara Ahmed

Anyway, so that’s what I’ve been reading. How bout you?

This week: Maya Angelou and #YesAllWomen

In between the things I juggle, two things crossed my radar this week. Maya Angelou died on Wednesday. And #YesAllWomen, a Twitter outpouring of support and grief and shared stories after the Santa Barbara shootings, passed a million tweets and is still going strong.

My introduction to Maya Angelou was in a women’s literature course –one of the basic ones, women’s voices through time or something– at a satellite campus of University of South Carolina. And it was excellent. We read Margaret Cavendish and Lauren Berlant and Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley. We talked about what it means to write. What it means to have to prove you even have the authority to write. What it means to be an author and not a muse. What it means to define yourself by how you are viewed. We talked about the invisible power structures in language, about old boy’s clubs and old wives’ tales and how knowledge is credited and discredited. We talked about identifying our privilege and overcoming disadvantage. It was a great class.

And we read Maya Angelou.

“Still I Rise” is one of my favorites of hers. I love the acknowledgement of–then resistance to–the framework in which she is supposed to fit.

I love that laugh as she is talking about her sassiness.

It reminds me of Hélène Cixous’s writing about the laugh of the medusa. “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) is Cixous’s most influential article–in it, she identifies the misogyny inherent in language and proposes resistance to that misogyny through a focus on the body as a way for women to write themselves true, instead of being written as the monstrous other. The laugh of the medusa is an embodied resistance, it is that which can overcome, subvert, mock oppression. It is a “call to arms urging women to reclaim their bodies and, by extension, their desires and identities through writing.” It is Maya Angelou cackling at your presumption that she is going to droop her shoulders and submit to your classification. The laugh.

But, while the laugh is a vital means of personal resistance, it is not everything. It doesn’t make the world safer.

I’ve been following along, with horror, all of the news that has been coming out about the Santa Barbara shootings. Read about Elliot Roger’s misogyny here. And the misogyny that drove the shootings, while a drastically more tragic incident than what many women face, has inspired a huge out-pouring of personal experiences of sexism under the hashtag #YesAllWomen.


And there are, literally, thousands more. Read more tweets here, read more about the #YesAllWomen movement here.

Madeline Davis wrote an article about it on Jezebel: “I am not an angry feminist. I’m a furious one.”

Her final lines are what got me. She says

And I’m still angry, still furious. I’m furious that growing up, I wasn’t allowed to do the same things that my brother did because it wasn’t safe for me. I’m furious that my parents ingrained in me from a very young age that I should never wear heels because I should always be ready to run at a moment’s notice. I’m furious that walking alone at night feels more like an act of rebellion than a simple act of transit. I’m furious at myself for worrying that participating in #YesAllWomen would lose me Twitter followers or turn off the boy I’m trying to impress. I’m furious for the women who are afraid to tell a dude at a bar to “fuck off” because they might getbottled in the face. I’m furious at the men who entered this comment thread to complain about how no one wants to fuck them even though they’re nice. I am furious at the commenter who read an article about a girl getting murdered by a fellow student after she declined an invitation to prom and then wrote 18 paragraphs on how he doesn’t believe in rape culture because he’s never seen it. I’m furious that girls get shot in the head or kidnapped for simply daring to go to school. I am furious at my own embarrassing and idiotic impulse to say #NotAllWhiteFeminists when women of color discuss their mistreatment and dismissal by the white feminist community. I am furious about the number of tips we receive daily about the mishandling of sexual assault investigations. I am furious about sexual assault. I am furious at the people who will inevitably tell me to calm down after reading this.

And mostly I’m furious that I’ll eventually shrug all of this off, too, because laughing about it is easier than changing it. I’m furious because I don’t know what else to do.

So. I don’t know. Laughing is easier, but laughing is ultimately a gesture of futility. Today, this week, it feels a bit futile.

Plot Junkie: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (Part 2, A Couple of Boy Geniuses)

Book 1 of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay told us who Josef Kavalier and Sam Klayman/Clay were, Book 2 tells us what they want to do.

The morning after Josef arrives in his life, Sam wakes up to find his cousin filling in spaces of his own cherished comic book sketches. His artistic ambition is hampered by a rather less than deft drawing style. Josef, on the other hand, is adept and, as it is revealed, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. (This is just a quibble, but I don’t believe his drawing ability was alluded to at all in the first book. His younger brother could draw, but he was more involved with learning methods of escape. Josef seems to have been imbued with a lot of various talents.) Anyway. Josef is very artistic, it turns out that Sam is a whiz at plot construction. After successfully pitching the idea of a comic (in the style of the newly-popular Superman comics) to Sam’s boss, their character “The Escapist” is born.

I’d never really considered the social context of the comic book genre. I’ve been troubled by the messianic qualities of the superhero genre (people don’t save themselves, they wait for an otherworldly someone to combat the baddies, which is great if that otherworldly being comes, but could tend to make the population somewhat passive in their wait for rescue.) The Amazing Adventures contextualizes that reliance on the otherworldly superhero by placing it against the seemingly insurmountable adversaries of the era: the financial woes and the European turmoil of the 1930’s.

I think I love most how Chabon talks about the centrality of language to reality:

Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina’s delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Lowe ben Bezalei, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and kabbalistic chitchat–was, literally, talked into life.



Plot Junkie: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (Part 1, The Escape Artist)

I read way too fast. That sounds like a humblebrag (hashtag humblebrag), but isn’t meant that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading fast. I read for plot, pure and simple. It’s not the most cultured approach to literature–while I’m occasionally gob-smacked by the beauty of a sentence or the perfection of an expressed emotion, really, it’s about the plot. Just tell me happens next.

I’m a plot junkie, pure and simple.

And I don’t really have a problem with this. The first time I read The Crimson Petal and the White, I finished it in an 18 hour marathon. At the end, I was exhausted and exhilarated, and would have had trouble relating any but the broadest strokes of the plot. (Except for the tumor lurking behind Agnes’s eye. Jesus, that stuck with me.) However, I still had fun, and that’s the point of reading, no? And the second and third times I read it, I got more. Still at a break-neck pace, but more.

I’ve combated this whole speed-reader problem in the past with restrictions on my reading. In 2012, there was my whole 12 in 12 plan. I decided that I was only reading one book per month, and so I picked twelve tomes of literature that I’d been avoiding–Les MiserablesAnna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo  and each week reviewed the portion of the book that I’d finished. And I’m great at making plans, but not so good at the follow through: I ended up just starting each month with the chosen book, tearing through that at my usual pace, and then adding everything else I wanted to read after. I  made it all the way to the third week of January before I cracked, and tore through The Crimson Petal and the White in a day and a half.

ANYWAY. Sidetracked, sorry. So I read too fast. It’s great, it’s fun, but I miss a lot. So (here’s my train of thought again) when I find a book that is truly excellent, I try to make a conscious effort to slow down and enjoy. You know, chew your food, don’t just inhale.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay promises to be just such a worth-savoring book. I’m hardly the first to recognize this, I realize. The book won the Pulitzer, for god’s sake. But books that receive such acclaim kind of hover in the periphery for me–I imagine (or have seen, who knows at this point), tables of publishers’ remainders at deeply discounted prices, stocked with the highly-lauded: Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers. And I assume they will be excellent, but life is short and books are long, and if I read everything popular, well, I’ll have no time for all of those impossibly obscure gems from the late nineteenth century. But in the past few weeks of graduation celebration, several people whose opinion I respect raved about this book. And so my boyfriend (who is solely responsible for the recent influx of books: my graduation gift basically cleared out my Amazon book wishlist) (yay!) ordered it.

And I’m seriously loving this book.

Part 1, The Escape Artist

Part 1 begins with the meeting of Samuel Louis Klayman and Josef Kavalier in 1939 in Sammy’s Brooklyn bedroom.

Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews: Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable. He was not, in  any conventional way, handsome. His face was an inverted triangle, brow large, chin pointed, with pouting lips and a blunt, quarrelsome nose. He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money.

Josef Kavalier was thrust through the door of Sammy’s bedroom late one October night by Sammy’s mother, who introduced the apparently expected guest as one of their Czech cousins, just arrived in New York from San Francisco. Kavalier is the escape artist of the title–in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it is increasingly dangerous to be Jewish, and incredibly difficult to leave. His escape to America involves centuries of rabbinical tradition, magic tricks, diversion, dunking,  and the theft of a giant’s suit. Really and truly excellent.