Non-Fiction

  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

    James Agee & Walker Evans

    Image of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South

    Words could, I believe, be made to do or to tell anything within human conceit. That is more than can be said of the instruments of any other art. But it must be added of words that they are the most inevitably inaccurate of all mediums of record and communication, and that they come at many of the things which they alone can do by such a Rube Goldberg articulation of frauds, compromises, artful dodges and tenth removes as would fatten any other art into apoplexy if the art were not first shamed out of existence…

    Agee and Evans originally traveled to Alabama on assignment for Fortune magazine; Fortune declined to publish the result, and their documentation of three white...more

  • True North

    Rebecca Solnit

    Image of True North

    True North was a 2008 exhibition at Deutsche Guggenheim; this catalog is technically not by Rebecca Solnit, but I borrowed it to read her opening essay, “The Needle Points, the Ice Melts: Thoughts Facing North.” Solnit manages a fairly broad survey of the north, framed through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, based on an adolescent memory of a made-for-TV version’s polar climax. She breezes through colonialist explorations, draws in some Cold War references, and finishes up by drawing a parallel between Frankenstein and climate change. Brilliant and poetic. The art is lovely too....more

  • On Photography

    Susan Sontag

    Image of On Photography

    Although photography generates works that can be called art — it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure — photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac’s Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget’s Paris.

    About halfway through this book, you might start to wonder if Sontag appreciates photography at all, and potentially you’ll wonder further exactly when her relationship with Annie Leibovitz started (in the late 80s, well after the publication of this book, though...more

  • No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4'33"

    Kyle Gann

    Image of No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (Icons of America)

    John Cage’s 4'33" is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew.

    Kyle Gann prefaces this look at Cage’s most widely recognized piece by addressing his own background with Cage and 4'33", namely...more

  • Just Kids

    Patti Smith

    Image of Just Kids

    A memoir for anyone who gets a little romantic about New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, Smith sketches out her early years in the city and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Early on they were lovers, but for most of their time together (and up until Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989), they had what could be called an artistic partnership. They shared their early, struggling years, both knowing they wanted to be artists but not knowing exactly how to go about it. The process of their experimentations and insertion of themselves into the art scene as well as the battle to just stay afloat with very little during a time of growing crime make up most...more

  • Ways of Seeing

    John Berger

    Image of Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series

    Kind of the Camera Lucida on fine art, this book is based on the BBC documentary of the same name. Seven essays, three composed entirely of images and four primarily of text that aren’t too heavy with the theory. Of those that are textual, they look at the mystification of art —

    Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective facts, it includes consciousness.) Out of true with the present, these assumptions obscure the past. They mystify rather than clarify. The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and

    ...more
  • Elegy for Iris

    John Bayley

    Image of Elegy for Iris

    I never saw the movie version of Bayley’s recollections of his life with Iris Murdoch. Just like Strange Big Moon, I got halfway through this book before I just didn’t want to pick it up again. In this case, I think only have read Murdoch’s novel The Sea, The Sea so got lost in talk about specific works, many of which was not about that one that I’ve read. But also it’s just exceptionally sad in a way that doesn’t pair well with the dreary end of winter. As much as I hate to say it, I’d almost rather watch the movie because then it will only take me an hour and a half....more

  • Strange Big Moon

    Joanne Kyger

    Image of Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964

    I got really excited when I first got this book and read this on the first page:

    Confession merely enables you to go on acting like a coward, behavior does not change. As self awareness then condones further actions of the same sort.

    At the time this resonated strongly, but over time I lost interest and the book wound up getting buried on a horizontal surface, half-read. Maybe I’ll come back to it sometime, as Kyger’s day-to-day reactions to life in Japan are definitely interesting on some level, including how it came to be that she married fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder upon their arrival. It might be that it was all too “daily life” for the time being....more

  • The Sweet Life in Paris

    David Lebovitz

    Image of The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City

    Only recently did I get with the program and start reading David Lebovitz’s blog — I’ve tried to make up for lost time by making his butterscotch pudding several times in the last few weeks. I assumed this book would basically be a printed “best of” the blog (which would further help me catch up on what I’ve been missing), but actually the essays are original to the book, though many of the topics were probably mentioned.. like, most of the list of 15 unlikeable things about Paris shows up in expanded form in the book.

    Following a similar approach as his blog, there’s a lot about food (including many recipes) and insider scoops on places to go...more

  • Art and Fear

    Paul Virilio

    Image of Art and Fear

    It’s a little ridiculous how long I’ve been reading this book, considering it’s less than 100 pages long. It doesn’t even feel so dense but running at such a blistering pace that it’s a difficult to continually put it down and pick it back up again, as it becomes necessary to constantly backtrack to get back up to speed. I still wound up feeling like I barely maintained the thread throughout and should have done my best to read it in one sitting.

    The thing I love about his writing is that he recognizes the need to emphasize with both all caps and italics:

    To better understand such a heretical point of view about the programmed demise of the

    ...more

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