Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

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The Millions Top Ten: March 2009


Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out the original introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences2 months2.2.26663 months3.-The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker1 month4.-Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste1 month5.4.Olive Kitteridge2 months6.3.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 months7. (tie)-Knockemstiff1 month7. (tie)7.The Dud Avocado3 months9.8. (tie)A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again3 months10.5.Infinte Jest3 monthsWe have three debuts on our list this month.The Rejection Collection is a book edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee that, as its title suggests, collects cartoons that didn’t quite make it into the New Yorker. And it’s not that these cartoons weren’t good enough to get in, it’s that they were just a little “off,” too weird or even off-color to grace the magazine’s hallowed pages. We wrote about the book when it came out in 2006, and we also wrote about its sequel, The Rejection Collection Vol. 2: The Cream of the Crap when it appeared in 2007.Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is another quirky addition to the top 10. It’s a part of the 33 1/3 series of books about songs. Carl Wilson’s entry, about a Celine Dion song, was singled out by Dan Kois in his Year in Reading post in December. Reading the book, Kois said, “was to be both inspired and filled with despair.”Finally, we also add Donald Ray Pollack’s collection Knockemstiff, newly out in paperback. Knockemstiff was another Year in Reading selection. Kyle Minor described the book as “Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime’s experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I’ve ever read.” And he compared it to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.Meanwhile, sentence diagramming tome Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog remains at the top thanks to the enduring quality of Garth’s recent post parsing President Obama’s sentences.Dropping from the list are Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, and J.K. Rowling’s work of Potter lore The Tales of Beedle the Bard.See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2009

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Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out last month’s introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences1 month2.1.26662 months3.2.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2 months4.-Olive Kitteridge1 month5.3.Infinte Jest2 months6.-Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-19631 month7.4.The Dud Avocado2 months8. (tie)5.The White Boy Shuffle2 months8. (tie)6.A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again2 months10.8.The Tales of Beedle the Bard2 monthsDebuting on the list this month in the top spot is Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, fueled by a huge amount of interest in Garth’s post diagramming one of the president’s sentences. With that post still quite popular, don’t be surprised if this quirky title stays on our list for quite some time.Another debut is Susan Sontag’s Journals and Notebooks. This collection of writing from Sontag’s younger years was highlighted in a recent post by Anne that got some attention.Also new on the list is Elizabeth Strout’s collection Olive Kitteridge, a National Book Critics Circle finalist and a Year in Reading pick from Manil Suri. Those two mentions were quite brief, however, and the recent interest in the book by Millions readers intrigues us. If you’ve read Kitteridge, let us know what you thought of it in the comments.Finally, dropping off the list this month are The Savage Detectives, The Northern Clemency, and Netherland.See Also: Last month’s list

A Girl’s Guide to Becoming an Intellectual: Susan Sontag’s Journals

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There’s an abundance of literature that tells teenage girls, as well as some of us older ones too, “how to.” Within, she discovers what makes guys tick, how to tame unruly skin, and lessons on looking good. Image, image everywhere, and this no doubt is practiced and perfected within her Facebook profile, and among her expanding, seeming limitless network of friends. Today’s young sophisticate learns quickly that appearances matter. But her mind still receives the short shrift. It’s not cool to stand her ground in battles of the intellect, and it’s brainy, not to mention isolating, to read too many books. And let’s say she already eschews such magazines and dating guides as callow or shallow, to where does our intellectual debutante turn for advice?Lucky for her, the first installment of Susan Sontag’s journals, composed during her teens and twenties, were recently collected and published in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-63. Sontag, one of the leading public intellectuals of the last fifty years, left a paper trail of her formative years that is as personal as it is articulate, learned, and hungry for experience. Deborah Eisenberg swoons over Sontag’s lucid insight in her New York Review of Books review: “It must always be fascinating to observe a child going about unwrapping the package that is herself… And how much more fascinating it is when the child is able to chronicle the process and the contents themselves are fascinating!” And later: “There’s no time for jokes or for alienated slacker bemusement. Everything must be read, everything!” Judging from the frequency of exclamation marks, Eisenberg, too, appears moved by the personal revelations and the urgency of Sontag’s entries. (Take note, dear girls, Deborah Eisenberg is a writer to add to your reading list – we’ll get to the list-making soon.)With Sontag as the lodestar, the young, aspiring intellectual won’t be led astray. No, not every girl will be endowed with such a capacity for insight and analysis, nor will she necessarily share Sontag’s unremitting energy, seriousness, or articulate thought. But she may feel reassured that by following Sontag’s steps she’s on the right path and that, in her awareness of beauty and image, she already has conquered one step, as Sontag reflects: “physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.”To follow closely in Sontag’s footsteps, the young intellect must first exhibit precocity. She should read and read more (it would help to have read Gide, Mann, and Rilke by age 15), and compile lengthy reading lists that include Dante, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Synge, and O’Neill. She should compulsively make other lists, too, of words, music, and slang – of anything that interests her, really – and establish a set of beliefs.And then: go off to college at 16 – if not at first to a prestigious academic institution, then transfer to one on scholarship. Become a research assistant to a dazzling young professor, and within ten days, get engaged, then marry him (if you marry at all). Have one child while you’re still very young, but make sure to have a nanny, too. Live in Paris, live in New York, or in a major cultural center at least. Travel to Europe frequently. Go to the theater, go to the opera, go to see films, sometimes two or three times a day. Cultivate an insatiable appetite, for culture, for aesthetics, for luxury, for life, and also for women. But even in living, remember to remain disinvolved and sometimes keep to yourself. Again, read as if your life depended on it, as if you’re addicted, and, eventually, write. Be serious, be confident, be brave, and, above all, be true to yourself.What’s more important than reliving Sontag’s life is remaining faithful to the essence of her message. As Sontag discovers in her semesters at Berkeley – “God, living is enormous!” Remember, its expanses are wide, and it is often the scope of imagination that circumscribes. You should move these journals to the top of your reading queue. But until you have the chance to do so, I’ve distilled Sontag’s observations and reflections to seven guiding tenets:1. Read voraciously: “Some years ago I realized that reading made me sick, that I was like an alcoholic who nevertheless experiences a hangover after each binge… And I couldn’t keep away from the stuff.”2. Live voraciously (not vicariously), too: “A thought occurred to me today – so obvious, so always obvious! It was absurd to suddenly comprehend it for the first time – I felt rather giddy, a little hysterical: – There is nothing, nothing that stops me from doing anything except myself…” And also: “The really important thing is not to reject anything…,” and, “I want to err on the side of violence and excess, rather than to underfill my moments.”3. Be confident, ambitious, and cultivate your ego: “Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity.” And: “With a little ego-building – such as the fait accompli this journal provides – I shall win through to the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said.”4. Keep a journal of your own: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather – in many cases – offers an alternative to it.” But keep in mind: “One of the main (social) functions of a journal is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest in the journal.”5. All the world’s a stage: “Through the mask of my behavior, I do not protect my raw, genuine self – I overcome it.” “…I live my life as a spectacle for myself, for my own edification.” And, quoting Stendhal: “Create an effect, then leave quickly.”6. Make time for good sex: “The orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not salvation, but, more, the birth of ego. Yet the only kind of writer [I] could be is the kind who exposes himself… To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name. To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself…” (c.f. #3)7. Betray others but always be true to yourself: “I have always betrayed people to each other. No wonder I’ve been so high-minded and scrupulous about how I use the word ‘friend’!” and “It’s better to hurt people than not be whole.” Most of all: “Love the truth above wanting to be good.”

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