Susan Sontag and Reading Essays

I ordered an anthology of Susan Sontag essays and they were delivered yesterday.

Essays seem particularly capable of revealing the way a person sees the world. Writers choose topics of interest and stare at them until the room blurs, follow their attention as it contracts and bends. Essayists tell me more than novelists and poets.

Perhaps it's because I don't want to think that hard, or perhaps it's because the essay I just read in the Sontag collection was "Against Interpretation." It's difficult to imagine the mind of a writer more exposed than in the lines of an essay.

I look at the front cover of the book. "Sontag" is printed across the jacket in white type and she stares, melancholy, from a black and white frame. Her hair is frayed at the ends and her leather jacket open.

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.

And I feel that the door to her mind creaks open slightly.

Orwell tilts awkwardly away from the camera with a cigarette, or perhaps not, and smiles the exact same tight-lipped smile regardless of the background.

... we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

And his words capture a humor the camera can't.

Novelists make exceptional essayists. I understand Sontag wrote fiction. Orwell is perhaps my favorite essayist and is far more famous for his novels. My other two favorites, Joan Didion and James Baldwin, novelists as well.

I can't say that I prefer their essays – I'm not sure how anyone could 'prefer' anything to Giovanni's Room – but their essays are magnetic in a way the novels aren't. Musicians alone with instruments are magnetic in a way that recorded albums aren't. I'm forty pages from the end of a book and my dad insists I read Paul Auster's Mr. Vertigo next, so I'm sure I'll eat those words. I guess I'll eat any words you put on my plate.

I love novels too, but there's still something about walking a very short pathway in the mind of another that illuminates in peculiar, charming, and direct ways.


Writing, ReadingPeter Amos