A. O. Scott, author of the forthcoming title Better Living Through Criticism (out in February 2016), shares ”The Five Books of Criticism that Changed My Life” with the Penguin Hotline:
1. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand. Many of the virtues of Auden’s poetry—the mix of conversational ease and high philosophical seriousness; the naughty wit and unguarded earnestness; the friendliness and unmatched erudition—are on display in this collection of critical writings. There is ample wisdom and much fun to be found in the chapters on Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and Igor Stravinsky, but it’s the first three chapters, devoted to “Reading,” “Writing” and “Making, Knowing, and Judging” that make this book one I return to again and again. Masquerading as a miscellaneous collection of aphorisms and observations, those pages add up to a theory of human thought and behavior, and therefore a guide to life.
2. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work. Technically more of a memoir than a work of criticism, Baldwin’s survey of the role movies played in his life—from his childhood trips to the cinema with a sympathetic teacher to his adventures in Hollywood in the 60s—is a characteristically sharp and generous critique of American society and some of its most cherished cultural products. An unsparing indictment of the way the movies have ignored and distorted America’s racial history, the book is a tour de force of corrective interpretation and a tribute to the power of cinema.
3. Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies. Anyone who writes about popular culture has to contend with Kael: her taste, her voice, her seductive arguments and maddening inconsistencies. She’s inescapable, and this collection of her early work—written before she became an institution at The New Yorker—shows her at her vital, bruising best.
4. Susan Sontag, On Photography. Sontag is someone whose writing I never stop rereading, though there is probably no critic I find more reliably wrong. For me, she offers unmatched access to the drama of thinking, and I read her not to be convinced but to observe her mighty mind at work. This book, six essays originally commissioned by The New York Review of Books, considers photography as an art form, a technology and a moral and spiritual challenge. Sontag’s call for “an ecology of images” in a world awash in pictures may seem quaint, but in the age of Instagram and the selfie her jeremiad seems prophetic and painful.
5. Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist. My new book, Better Living Through Criticism, starts with a long quote from this mischievous dialogue, and I would have been happiest if I could have just reprinted the whole thing. It’s as funny as any of Wilde’s plays, effortlessly learned and marvelously perverse. He will convince you that criticism is more important than any of the other arts and that “it is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it.” Those are the words I’ve tried to live by.
Thanks, A. O. Scott! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend a forthcoming favorite of ours: Better Living Through Criticism.