Siri Hustvedt has long been a favorite author of mine. Not only because she's a fellow alumna of the English program at St. Olaf College in Minnesota or that her husband happens to be one of my favorite novelists, Paul Auster. Although those things don't hurt, Hustvedt's writing --- whether fiction or nonfiction --- continues to land on my "must read" list year after year because she never fails to challenge me to think about a whole variety of things in new and often unexpected ways.
That's especially true with her new collection of essays, LIVING, THINKING, LOOKING. Published between 2006 and 2011, the essays (as the title suggests) touch on some of her key themes: understanding oneself, understanding the mind through psychology and neuroscience, and understanding visual art.
"LIVING, THINKING, LOOKING might not be obvious beach reading, but it's nevertheless the perfect summertime book for dipping into on vacation. Opened to virtually any essay, even any page, Hustvedt's collection invites readers to savor language and consider the world anew."
What's fascinating about Hustvedt's writing is that she explores these topics not only in her often quite dense and intellectual essays, but also in her equally robust fiction. The subtext of LIVING, THINKING, LOOKING is Hustvedt always considering not only these topics but also how, and why, they surface in her novels. As not only a storyteller but also a student of the human mind, she considers --- repeatedly and from different angles --- the project of human memory, of constructing narratives both of one's life and in one's fiction. Any writer (or thoughtful reader, for that matter) will find much to engage with here.
Also, as in her novels (and in her outstanding memoir THE SHAKING WOMAN), Hustvedt here returns time and again to the body and its weaknesses, to human frailty as evidenced in her own debilitating migraines, for example, or in her father's decline. But the physical is always intertwined with the intellectual, as Hustvedt also continually draws on great thinkers from Kierkegaard to Freud as she considers the questions she sets before herself.
Since these essays were originally published in a wide variety of outlets --- from the New York Times to Contemporary Psychoanalysis --- it's not surprising that they vary considerably in tone, from the purely academic to the merely erudite. Hustvedt's greatest gift, however, is that readers --- even though they might be challenged to keep up with her flexible, energetic mind --- are unlikely to ever give up or grow bored. Instead, they'll follow Hustvedt's intellect wherever it may take them --- and feel just a little smarter as a result.
What never varies --- and what probably keeps readers fascinated as much as anything --- is Hustvedt's carefully crafted prose. Even when her topic is complicated or lofty, her prose never falls anywhere short of pure elegance. Take this passage, for example, part of a consideration of looking versus seeing, of representational art and photography: "Sometimes I like to look at my husband's face in photographs because he becomes a stranger in the pictures, an object fixed in time. Over many years, I have come to know him through my other senses, too --- the feel of his skin, the changing smell of his body in winter and spring and fall and summer, the sound of his voice, his breathing, and sometimes his snoring at night. When I look at him in a photograph, my other senses are quiet. I simply see him."
LIVING, THINKING, LOOKING might not be obvious beach reading, but it's nevertheless the perfect summertime book for dipping into on vacation. Opened to virtually any essay, even any page, Hustvedt's collection invites readers to savor language and consider the world anew.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 2, 2012