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How Susan Sontag Made Making Lists Sexy

Gide, Sherwood Anderson, Ludwig Lewisohn, Faulkner, George Moore, Dostoyevsky, Huysmans, Bourget, Arsybashev, Trumbo, Galsworthy, Meredith. Plus the poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heine, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire, and the plays of Synge, O’Neill, Calderon, Shaw, and Hellman. This is the list Susan Sontag made at fifteen. Or, this is an excerpt of a list Sontag made at fifteen.

Her son, David Rieff, who edited her newly published journals, notes that this one list went on for another five pages. (Speculation on the choice to leave out the rest is…such a bore.) These are the things Sontag needed and wanted to read as a young girl. She also made lists of people she wanted to know, and lists of phrases she needed to know—in French, before going to France.

Should Sontag’s lists make us feel lazy? Or should they simply serve as a reminder of another, more intellectually ambitious time. Who has lists like this anymore? Lists are for Christmas. Jay Gatsby had an infamous list, too. Lists are good for resolutions and to dos, of course.

There is something very—perhaps uniquely—American about lists. They are hopeful, and discretely ambitious. Also, they imply a lack of something, an itch. Perhaps there is something about Intellectual Lists perfect for this time, Obama Time. Lists are not just for Christmas anymore.

In Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Rieff’s Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, he points out that the expectation of some Sontag sexy revelation is not met—at least not in how we traditionally expect a “memoir” to meet these expectations. Yet, for any girl who grew up thinking of Sontag as the sine qua non of Thinking Cool, this book is a necessary read. The sexy revelation for us is not Who She Slept With but rather, How Did She Read It all. Seeing inside Sontag’s mind is a gift. One thing we might learn her: the selectivity is all. The rest is silence.


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