Spiegel & Grau asked Lee Siegel to choose his favorite against-the-grain books.January 1, 2008
The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm
From its immortal first sentence—“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—to its final words, Malcolm’s paradigm-shifting book is a guileful polemic, wrapped in a thrilling investigative story, hidden in the form of a scathing parable. Every word falls on the page with a fatality of felt experience—and every word runs counter to the received wisdom about journalism, writing, and even the human personality. Having read the book several times, I now pick up this scathingly honest book and read a passage at random whenever I need to be replenished and refreshed.
Don Juan, Lord Byron
The natural man, in all his shades and moods, against “civilized” society’s cruelty and hypocrisy. Written in strict ottava rima, the poem’s very meter is like a reproach against the stifling custom and convention it assails—as if to say that art’s rigor and discipline, conferred on honest expression, is the strongest proof of character and decency.
Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer
A culture obsessed by fame and celebrity, as ours is, might turn to this book as an antidote to the general fame-sickness. An account of Mailer’s involvement in the march on the Pentagon in October 1967, the book portrays Mailer at his most self-detached, mocking his own renown, deflating himself at every turn, and yet somehow amplifying his dignity the more he punctures the incurable side of his nature. Written in the first person, Armies is an object lesson in how to write about your life without writing about yourself.
Parodies, Dwight Macdonald
Macdonald put together this once-celebrated book of parodies to, as he wryly wrote, put his children through college. Everything is here, from Max Beerbohm’s parody of Henry James, to an absolutely wicked and hilarious send-up of existentialism in the form of “resistentialism,” a philosophy that deals with objects that resist being moved, or that won’t get out of your way as you walk unwittingly toward them in the dark on your way to the bathroom. Nothing cuts a clear soundless path through all the daily din as effectively as parody and satire. This volume should be placed next to the Gideon Bible in every hotel and motel room in the country.
Rilke once wrote that music picked him up and dropped him into the unfinished. (That unsettled him, he said.) The Bible picks you up and drops you into completion, into fullness of being, into astringent and yet calming first and last things. We see as through a glass darkly, and so the most “contrarian” line ever written is “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” And though inaccurate, the language of the King James Version is English at its peak of perfection, a creation of ontological translucency. Words are—to paraphrase James Joyce—the beleaguered, noise-ridden, mentally cluttered and distracted contemporary person’s arsenal. Words exist in the Bible (as well as in the plays of Shakespeare, written at the same time as the King James Version was produced) in their original freshness of being. They keep your perceptions green.