Raymond Williams had one particular concern about television. Before it, he said, drama was something that people saw occasionally. On TV they saw it every day – in prestige costume fiction, crime series, soap operas and the like. He saw this increase as unique in human history and felt that it changed the real. Much more of the time of a frequent TV watcher was spent looking at fictional worlds – half as much as they spent working or sleeping. Life became a stage, a telenovela. Spoken references, social information, role models and psychological attachments were TV drama influenced. People always had performed selves, but, felt Williams, the difference in degree became a difference in kind. TV, for heavy viewers, was replacing the real.

– Mark Cousins, The Story of Looking (2017)


Mrs Peacock was clearly trying to be a good hostess, but I wished she would stop. My opinion of her had already been formed, was written on paper, even, and factoring in her small kindnesses would only muddy the report. Like any normal fifth grader, I preferred my villains to be evil and stay that way, to act like Dracula rather than Frankenstein’s monster, who ruined everything by handing that peasant girl a flower. He sort of made up for it by drowning her a few minutes later, but, still, you couldn’t look at him the same way again. My sisters and I didn’t want to understand Mrs Peacock. We wanted to hate her.

– David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008)

Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase “sincere and simple”— “Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere”—under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: “Art is simple, art is sincere.” Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.

– Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (1973)

Sunday Review

Books I haven’t read

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yōko Tawada

The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding by Hugo Mercier

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman


Book made for purposes other than reading

The Story of Looking by Mark Cousins


Books read even before I opened them since they belong to the category of books read before being written

Lying by Sam Harris

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols


Books that if I had more than one life I would certainly also read but unfortunately my days are numbered

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Howards End by E. M. Forster

Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John


Books I mean to read but there are others I must read first

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

Women and Power by Mary Beard

Power by Naomi Alderman

Judas by Amos Oz


Books that everybody’s read so it’s as if I have read them too

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Autobiography by Morissey

Fifty Shades of Grey by Omnes Nos


Books that fill me with sudden, inexplicable curiosity, not easily justified

The Cambridge History of Africa (1600-1790), edited by Richard Gray

Austerity Britain by David Kynaston


Books read long ago which it’s now time to re-read

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe


Books I’ve always pretended to have read and now it’s time to sit down and really read them

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Money by Martin Amis

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

We are hardwired to believe that things do not disappear. Giving the choice between believing that something is no longer there or that it has slid under something that is there, we will choose the latter. This optical illusion of once seen never forgotten has a metaphysical dimension. It is hard, and painful, for us to accept that when a loved one dies their consciousness disappears, so, instead, we comfort ourselves with the belief that it slides behind, or goes to an adjacent room, or to heaven. The supernatural, Santa, ghosts and reincarnation are all related to this persistence of vision, this after-image. Our looking is haunted by what we once saw.

– Mark Cousins, The Story of Looking (2017)

It is difficult to imagine today the enormous differences then separating a lad born in the Seven Dials and a carter’s daughter from a remote East Devon village. Their coming together was fraught with almost as many obstacles as if he had been an Eskimo and she, a Zulu. They had barely a common language, so often did they not understand what the other had just said.

Yet this distance, all those abysses unbridged and then unbridgeable by radio, television, cheap travel and the rest, was not wholly bad. People knew less of each other, perhaps, but they felt more free of each other, and so were more individual. The entire world was not for them only a push or a switch away. Strangers were strange, and sometimes with an exciting, beautiful strangeness. It may be better for humanity that we should communicate more and more. But I am a heretic, I think our ancestors’ isolation was like the greater space they enjoyed: it can only be envied. The world is only too literally too much with us now.

– John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)


[Several groups in the Amazon] have a novel conception of conception: a fetus is made of accumulated semen.

Anthropologists Stephen Beckerman and Paul Valentine explain, “Pregnancy is viewed as a matter of degree, not clearly distinguished from gestation…all sexually active women are a little pregnant. Over time…semen accumulates in the womb, a fetus is formed, further acts of intercourse follow, and additional semen causes the fetus to grow more.” Were a woman to stop having sex when her periods stopped, people in these cultures believe the fetus would stop developing.

This understanding of how semen forms a child leads to some mighty interesting conclusions regarding “responsible” sexual behavior. Like mothers everywhere, a woman from these societies is eager to give her child every possible advantage in life. To this end, she’ll typically seek out sex with an assortment of men. She’ll solicit “contributions” from the best hunters, the best storytellers, the funniest, the kindest, the best-looking, the strongest, and so on—in the hopes her child will literally absorb the essence of each.

– Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (2010)



In all probability the conversation between Isadore Duncan and Anatole France, who were discussing eugenics, came to a sudden stop when Isadore said: “Imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!” and Anatole responded: “Yes, but imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!”

– The Boston Globe, December 7, 1923

What are we faced with in the nineteenth century? An age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds–a few shillings, if you wanted her for only an hour or two. Where more churches were built than in the whole previous history of the country; and where one in sixty houses in London was a brothel (the modern ratio would be nearer one in six thousand). Where the sanctity of marriage (and chastity before marriage) was proclaimed from every pulpit, in every newspaper editorial and public utterance; and where never–or hardly ever– have so many great public figures, from the future king down, led scandalous private lives. […] Where the female body had never been so hidden from view; and where every sculptor was judged by his ability to carve naked women. Where there is not a single novel, play or poem of literary distinction that ever goes beyond the sensuality of a kiss […] and where the output of pornography has never been exceeded. […] Where it was universally maintained that women do not have orgasms; and yet every prostitute was taught to simulate them.

At first sight the answer seems clear–it is the business of sublimation. The Victorians poured their libido into those other fields; as if some genie of evolution, feeling lazy, said to himself: We need some progress, so let us dam and divert this one great canal and see what happens.

– John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)

I loathe popular pulp, I loathe go-go gangs, I loathe jungle music, I loathe science fiction with its gals and goons, suspense and suspensories. I especially loathe vulgar movies—cripples raping nuns under tables, or naked-girl breasts squeezing against the tanned torsos of repulsive young males. And, really, I don’t think I mock popular trash more often than do other authors who believe with me that a good laugh is the best pesticide.

– Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (1973)

As attentive readers may have noted, the standard narrative of heterosexual interaction boils down to prostitution: a woman exchanges her sexual services for access to resources. Maybe mythic resonance explains part of the huge box-office appeal of a film like Pretty Woman, where Richard Gere’s character trades access to his wealth in exchange for what Julia Roberts’s character has to offer (she plays a hooker with a heart of gold, if you missed it). Please note that what she’s got to offer is limited to the aforementioned heart of gold, a smile as big as Texas, a pair of long, lovely legs, and the solemn promise that they’ll open only for him from now on. The genius of Pretty Woman lies in making explicit what’s been implicit in hundreds of films and books. According to this theory, women have evolved to unthinkingly and unashamedly exchange erotic pleasure for access to a man’s wealth, protection, status, and other treasures likely to benefit her and her children.

Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.

– Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (2010)