Siri Hustvedt: ‘I responded viscerally to De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex’ | Siri Hustvedt

My first reading memory
At the age of six, I became fascinated by the Lonely Doll books by Dare Wright that I had found in the public library in my small town, Northfield, Minnesota. They used pictures, not graphics, as illustrations; They gave me a strange feeling for the secrets behind the words and pictures. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.

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My favorite book is growing up
I loved Anne Petrie’s biography, Harriet Tubman: A Leader on the Subway. I found it in my school library in 1965, 10 years after it was first published. I was 10 years old and very familiar with the civil rights movement, despite the fact that I lived in an all-white city and only saw black people on forays into Minneapolis every Christmas. I was passionately attached to the story of this extraordinary heroic woman.

The book that changed me when I was a teenager
When I was 14 or 15 I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Despite my lack of philosophical sophistication, I responded to the book in depth. After re-reading it later, I wonder exactly what I understood at the time. It is not an easy book. I suspect that despite my struggle with the text, I got its core message out – that women have been treated as strangers to history as the immortal feminine, that they have always been other than the man, and that these grievances run deep. became a feminist.

The writer who changed my mind
I was in my early thirties when I first read French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose book The Phenomenology of Cognition reorganized my thinking about the mind/body problem. His work changed my “mind” by inserting it into my body. It distorts the duality of matter between mind and body in the philosophy of Descartes and his heirs. The philosopher’s interest in the science of the moment and his erroneous assumptions, as well as his use of neuroscience studies to illustrate his thought, have remained very influential on my thinking.

The book that made me want to be a writer
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I was 13 years old. It was the summer of 1968, and I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, where my dad was studying the Icelandic epic. Political upheaval was dimly present in my consciousness, but I lived through the novels. The sun never sets, and my turbulent circadian rhythm kept me awake. I read and read, novel after novel, but it was that book that got on my nerves. One night, when I felt weeping from a certain passage, which I no longer remember, I walked to the window and vowed–if this is what books can do, that is what I wanted to do. I started writing. Years later, I wrote my PhD thesis on Dickens. Although I sometimes got tired of being seen while working on the thesis, I never lost my sense of awe for the incomparable CD.

The book or author you returned to
I didn’t “get” Gertrude Stein as a teenager. I had to become an adult to feel the music, the humor, and the rigor in her work.

The book I reread
I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte five times now. I first read it at thirteen during the same Icelandic summer, and it really frightened me. The older I get, the more profound and radical the book becomes. I came to see it as a text of rebellion that destroys our assumptions about the boundaries between this and that, you and me, life and death and grinds them to dust.

The book I could not read again
I’m ashamed of Gone With the Wind. I read it the same fateful Icelandic summer. I pulled it from the Reykjavik Public Library, not understanding that the author was writing about the Ku Klux Klan, and had to ask my mother what the word “rape” meant. This horrible and cheesy book provided a disgusting tale of a “lost cause” still dear to the American South and parts of the North.

The book I discovered later in life
I didn’t read Simon Weil’s Gravity and Grace until I was in my forties. I think now this was the perfect moment for me because I was able to put the text in a broader context. At the same time, the fleeting precision of Will’s extraordinary mind would undoubtedly excite me when I was a young man as well.

The book I’m reading right now
A wonderful book recently published, In Defense of Man by Thomas Fox. Fox, Professor of Philosophy and Psychiatry at the University of Heidelberg, is a clear and brilliant advocate for a new form of humanity.

Read my comfort
Fairy tales and folktales – any kind from any country.

Moms, Dads, and More: New Articles by Siri Hostvedt published by Scepter. The group discusses at Hay Festival Winter Weekend online:

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