Saturday, 15 December 2018

books i read this autumn


Autumn has mostly been spent working to save money for my Masters. Although I have had much less spare time and less compulsory reading than at uni, I have managed to read more than usual. Here’s what I read this Autumn.

The Vanity Fair Diaries – Tina Brown

Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, shares her experiences as one of the most powerful magazine editors in 1980s New York. It’s an intriguing, often intimate book that gives an insider’s perspective on the reality of the publishing world: fast-paced, cutthroat, and at the mercy of advertisers, PR and publishers.

The Vanity Fair Diaries goes to the heart of the inner debate many women have in balancing motherhood and a career. Brown shows that you can have both without making too many sacrifices in either, but it is not easy. Impossible choices, rushed deadlines and gnawing guilt appear as Brown balances both. This is definitely an essential read for ambitious women.

Front Row: Anna Wintour – Jerry Oppenheimer

Since graduating, I’ve spent a lot of time reading books that I think will benefit my career. I first heard of Jerry Oppenheimer’s biography of Anna Wintour during my research after watching The September Issue back in 2011. I have had the book ever since, but the poor online reviews put me off reading it until now. The research for this book comes across as scattered. Oppenheimer’s sources are mostly people who do not like Wintour, or at least are not particularly close to her. I was interested in learning more about Wintour’s career trajectory, but this book cements the notion that she was largely bolstered by money and connections.

Oppenheimer covers Wintour’s childhood, her relationships with older men, stints at Harpers & Queen, Harper’s Bazaar, Viva, Savvy and New York before landing in her iconic role as editor of Vogue. He doesn’t present Wintour in a very positive light. She is portrayed as the bossy, snobby, fussy Miranda Priestly-esque alpha. It is very poorly written and one-sided. If you want to get a better understanding of Anna Wintour, watch The September Issue, don’t read this. Even The Devil Wears Prada takes a more sympathetic view of the Wintour-inspired editor: “Okay, she’s tough, but if Miranda were a man no one would notice anything about her except how great she is at her job.” I don’t like what Wintour has done with Vogue in recent years, but her impact on the fashion industry has been monumental and that has to be worth at least some respect.

Meaning in the Visual Arts – Edwin Panofsky

Lately, I’ve also been focusing on learning more about art and getting better at viewing and appreciating works of art. Since I am starting an art school next month, I don’t want to feel like I know nothing compared to everyone around me. This book discusses art, religion and architecture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The key lessons I took away from it are:

-         Humans define art in relation to what it is not and our understanding of the world and the function of objects within it. We understand that a bed functions as an object to sleep on. However, this does not mean that a bed cannot also be art e.g. Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’.
-         Iconography relies on a shared understanding of an image. Icons and what they mean vary from culture to culture. Colonialism and globalisation mean that certain iconography from Western Christianity is understood the world over, but it hasn’t always been that way.
-         Beauty comes from proportion. Panofsky argues that what makes one work of art more objectively beautiful than another is proportion. Contemporary art has disrupted this since, but we will still often be naturally drawn to proportion.
-         It was believed that the brighter a work of art, the brighter and more spiritual it made the minds of the people. This is why stain glass windows in Churches and Cathedrals are in such bright colours. However, bright colours appear in many different religious belief systems.


Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties – Allen Ginsberg

I remember, vividly, in first year of uni huddled in the red light of the heater of a club smoking area I drunkenly, jokingly explained to a friend why I think I’m Allen Ginsberg reincarnated. (He died the year I was born, and I relate to a lot of his writing.) It was a bit of a reach, but a year later I cemented this union I felt with the dead, Beat poet by getting a sunflower tattooed on my wrist; a nod towards his poem ‘Sunflower Sutra.’

Journals documents Ginsberg’s life as a student at Columbia, his early career and all the drugs he took. In fact, it is less of a cohesive document than a scattered hazy drug-induced stream of consciousness. We get it, you do drugs. I was disappointed because his poetry and some of his quotes in letters come so much closer to real truths instead of just reflecting Peyote highs.

Mrs. Moneypenny's Careers Advice for Ambitious Women

After reading about the lives of two successful women, Tina Brown and Anna Wintour, hoping to absorb some of their success by osmosis, my friend leant me this book because she said she thought I’d like it. Reading books like this one helps me focus my mind on my goals no matter where I am in life at the time.

The book is primarily for women who plan on setting up their own business or becoming CEOs, but as an introductory guide on how to be successful it has the potential to be life altering. Whilst it didn’t inspire me to make any changes, it did reassure me that I am taking the right step in starting a Masters in January. Higher education might be expensive (and not always necessary) but if you know what you want to do, it is worth the investment because of the confidence it gives you in your abilities. Each chapter runs through a different misconception about ambition and success:

It’s who you know, but also what you know.

You can have it all, but you can’t have it all.

At times, the book does make sweeping generalisations about women, but that feels somewhat impossible to avoid when the title is so gendered. Gendering it allows Mrs. Moneypenny to address women-specific issues though, like sexism in the workplace and balancing motherhood with a career.


Why Fashion Matters – Frances Corner

I expected this book to give me answers I could use to justify my aspirations in fashion to myself and others, but instead it lists 101 facts, ideas and questions about the industry. Corner does not argue for why fashion matters but writes about what matters and what should matter to the fashion industry. Fashion matters to history, to the environment, to our sense of self. Fashion matters in a different way to the high street shopper than it does to the couturier. We view fashion one way in the West, whereas different cultures and religions around the world view it in different ways. Fashion education can be a powerful force for change, but we still have a long way to go.

In particular, Corner looks at how fashion history can predict the future of fashion. She predicts that fashion’s focus on sustainability will only grow stronger. I would not recommend this book if you are looking for an in-depth analysis of the fashion industry. However, as a book to own for research and referencing purposes, it is straightforward and easy to navigate. A few extracts:

·         “Fashion is the most immediate and intimate form of self-expression.”
·         “…of any industry fashion has the greatest range of stages involved in the making of its products.”
·         “If fashion is selling us a dream, why does it make us feel so inadequate?”
·         “Yuniya Kawamura, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, writes: “Fashion may be socially frivolous, but it is not sociologically trivial.””
·         “…we sometimes enter the fairy-tale world of The Emperor’s New Clothes when just because we are told something is fashionable and worth more, we believe it to be so.”
·         “Politics, intellectual engagement and fashion are not mutually exclusive.”
·         “The fashion industry needs to be careful about how it cultivates, nurtures and sustains creative talent; stretching an individual’s creativity beyond what is humanly possible risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
·         “Most fashion insiders remain unwilling to take responsibility for the dangerous game being played with self-esteem.”
·         “How often do we convince ourselves that we need something when really we just want it and we want it because it’s currently fashionable?”


The Art of Understanding Art: a New Perspective – Hugh Moss

I bought this at the Met in New York when I visited in August as part of my aim to learn more about art. It’s a perfect guide for starting to understand art; how to view it, its function and how the art industry works. Despite exploring consciousness, theory and aesthetics, this book is easy to read and understand. There is also a lot of information about Chinese art, as that is what Moss specialises in.

I did enjoy this book, but, two months after reading it, I remember few of its arguments. I don’t think our relationship with and gut reaction to art can be taught. However, Moss explains how you can open yourself up to visual art in order to be more receptive.

Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy is a writer I have been meaning to get into for a long time. I used to go on a lot of family holidays to Dorset, where I’d seek out independent bookstores where his books were everywhere. I started reading Jude the Obscure as a set text at university, but never finished it. I bought Far From the Madding Crowd when I was 15, after reading that it was one of Morrissey’s favourite books. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it in October and it has tropes of a classic Victorian romance; a rural setting, rushed marriages and abrupt changes of fortune. It is beautifully written and more gripping that I had expected.

Devotion – Patti Smith

Patti Smith is my favourite person ever. I heard about Devotion on her Instagram and knew I had to read it. It did not seem to be publicised as much as M Train. Perhaps because it is predominantly fiction rather than memoir. The short story is one of infatuation, ambition and coming-of-age. Admittedly, my favourite parts were the beginning and end, where Smith describes her writing process.

Smith asks, “Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the want of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite.”

Misery – Stephen King

My first Stephen King novel. I think this is one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. The premise of the book is that a writer is held hostage by his “number one fan” and forced to write a sequel to her favourite novel. If you love books, writing and gory psychological horror, this one’s for you.

On being a writer: “Writers remember everything...especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he'll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.” 


In Paris: 20 Women on Life in the City of Life – Jeanne Damas and Lauren Bastide

I read How to be Parisian last year, and this feels like it follows on from that. The French girl aesthetic is so overused by clickbaity fashion articles, but this book offers a refreshing take; interviewing real women and showing that, in Paris, women are as multifaceted as they are in any other part of the world. It contains over 100 photographs and functions as both a love letter to one of the world’s most loved cities and a rough guide to places only the locals know about.

The book features fashion designers, journalists, artists and businesswomen. Sylvia Whitman, the proprietor of the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore and daughter of its founder, tells Damas and Bastide how she loves cycling around the city and walking along the banks of the Seine early in the morning or late at night. She says, “Here, everything revolves around poetry.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath – Sylvia Plath

Another writer’s journal. “I like people too much or not at all,” Plath blurts out. “I’ve got to go down deep, to fall into people, to really know them.” Her journals are scattered with such quotable lines that transcend time, relating to the human experience as much today as they did when they were written over 50 years. “…remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it.”

Plath runs through her own catalogue of anxieties about her writing, her relationships, her mental illness and how she plans to make money. Though made up of her private journals, Plath’s writing is still detailed, creative and cohesive.

“Someone, somewhere can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn – “

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself – Michael A. Singer

This was one of my first forays into the world of self-help books. I made sure I was armed with a highlighter whenever I read it, so I could highlight the key points. I read it on recommendation from my counsellor and I could spot my own thinking patterns being discussed throughout.

The Untethered Soul blends Western psychology with Eastern spiritualism. Singer uses Freud’s psychology and yogic Raharma Maharshi’s teachings to explore the essence of the self. The self is something we lose sight of when we become too caught up in our thoughts. Singer argues that the voice talking inside your head, your constant inner monologue, telling you your thoughts, is not you. It is just a voice talking inside your head:

“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice in your mind- you are the one who hears it.”

Life is out of our control. Whatever the voice in your head is saying does not matter. It will not change what actually happens. So, why listen to it?

“The bottom line is, the sun will come up and the sun will go down. Billions of things are going on in this world. You can think about it all you want, but life is going to keep on happening.”

The main reason you listen to the voice in your head is because it gives you a false sense of having some sort of control over the world:

“If you can’t get the world the way you like it, you internally verbalise it, judge it, complain about it, and then decide what to do about it. This makes you feel more empowered.”

And your mind acts as a defence mechanism:

“You will be forced to constantly use your mind to buffer yourself from life, instead of living it.”

The book does become more complicated and I had to remind myself not to put too much pressure on myself to live by its principles. The parts I have quoted here are from the sections I found the most useful. I find approaches to self-improvement fascinating and would recommend this book to anyone who suffers from anxiety.


Let me know what you have been reading in the comments.

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