As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 By Susan Sontag Edited by David Rieff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 523 pp., $30) Susan Sontag’s prose is designed to strike readers as measured, simultaneously wise and matter-of-fact. She favors relatively short words and she is spare with her adjectives. The writing, whether in the essays or the novels, has a workmanlike neutrality, as if Sontag were not presenting her own thoughts so much as offering a guided tour of the higher regions of human experience.
Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America By Alan Ackerman (Yale University Press, 361 pp., $35) Mary McCarthy preferred the old-fashioned way. You might not know this from her three divorces and the anatomical precision of her bedroom scenes, but she had a strong streak of cultural conservatism. She rejected feminism and lamented the disappearance of Latin from the schoolhouse. The modern fascination with technology annoyed her.
When Irving Kristol joined the new magazine Commentary, he distinguished himself from the other editors--Clement Greenberg, part-time then, Robert Warshow, and me. First, he had an interest in politics, real politics, electoral politics, and not just the politics of left-wing anti-Stalinists, mulling over what was living and what was dead in Marxism, the fate of socialism, the future of capitalism, communist influence in the intellectual world--no mean issues, but hardly ones to affect who won and who lost an election.
“For two thousand years,” wrote Harold Rosenberg, “the main energies of Jewish communities have gone into the mass production of intellectuals.” For Rosenberg, the art critic who belonged to the receding constellation of writers known as the New York Intellectuals, such a claim was something between a boast and a self-justification. The New York Intellectuals were mainly second-generation Americans, whose self-sacrificing immigrant parents won them the opportunities America offered to newcomers, including Jews.
I. Picture books are the first books that any of us know. Before we can decode words or even letters, we are clutching their covers and awkwardly turning their pages. These books are our introduction to the mysteries of metaphor, to a combination of paper and printer's ink that can take us anywhere, reveal anything, whether fact or fiction or some mix of the two. You might say that picture books, even when we are too young actually to read them, are our primal reading experiences.