Siri Hustvedt: ‘I reacted profoundly to De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex’ | Siri Hustvedt

My earliest reading memory
At the age of six, I became fascinated with Dare Wright’s Lonely Doll books that I found in the public library of my small town, Northfield, Minnesota. They used photographs, not drawings, as illustrations; they gave me an uncanny sense of secrets lurking behind the words and images. It’s a feeling I’ve never forgotten.

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Growing up my favorite book
I loved Ann Petry’s biography, Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad. I found it in my school library in 1965, ten years after it was first published. I was 10 years old and intensely aware of the civil rights movement, despite living in an all-white city and seeing black people only on trips to Minneapolis every Christmas. I was passionately attached to the story of this special, heroic woman.

The Book That Changed Me As A Teen
When I was 14 or 15, I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Despite my lack of philosophical sophistication, I reacted viscerally to the book. When I reread it later, I wonder what exactly I understood then. It is not an easy book. I suspect that, despite my struggle with the text, I picked up on its essential message – that women were treated as outsiders to history as the eternal feminine, that they had always been something else to the man, and that these injustices ran deep. . I became a feminist.

The Writer Who Changed His Mind
I was in my early thirties when I first read the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose book Phenomenology of Perception rearranged my thinking about the mind-body problem. His work changed my “mind” by bringing it into my body. He pokes the dualism between body and mind in the philosophy of Descartes and his heirs. The philosopher’s interest in the science of the moment and its flawed assumptions, as well as his use of neurological case studies to illustrate his thinking, have continued to profoundly influence my own thinking.

The book that made me want to be a writer
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I was 13. It was the summer of 1968 and I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, where my father was studying the Icelandic sagas. Political turmoil was faint in my consciousness, but I lived on and in novels. The sun never set and my disturbed circadian rhythms kept me awake. I read and read, one novel after another, but it was that book that set my nerves on fire. One night, moved to tears by a passage I can’t remember, I walked to the window and made a vow: If this is what books can do, then this is what I wanted to do. I started writing. Years later I wrote my dissertation on Dickens. Although I was sometimes tired of myself and my insights while working on the thesis, I never lost a sense of awe for the inimitable CD.

The book or author I came back to
I didn’t get Gertrude Stein as a teenager. I had to grow up to feel the music, humor and accuracy of her work.

The book I’m rereading
I’ve read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights five times now. I first read it at the age of 13 in the same Icelandic summer, and it drove me crazy. The older I get, the more profound and radical the book has become. I’ve come to see it as a rebellious text that razes and grinds to dust our assumptions about the boundaries between this and that, me and you, life and death.

The Book I Could Never Read Again
I’m ashamed of Gone With the Wind. I read it that same fateful Icelandic summer. I checked it from the Reykjavik Public Library, didn’t understand the author was writing about the Ku Klux Klan, and had to ask my mom what the word “rape” meant. This hideous, cheap book brought up the disgusting story of the “lost cause” that the American South and parts of the North still hold dear.

The book I discovered later in my life
I didn’t read Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace until I was well into my forties. I now think this was just the right time for me because I could put the text in a broader context. At the same time, the lightning precision of Weil’s extraordinary mind would no doubt also have struck me as a young person.

The book I am currently reading
A beautiful recently published book, In Defense of the Human Being by Thomas Fuchs. Fuchs is a professor of philosophy and psychiatry at the University of Heidelberg and is a bright, brilliant defender of a new form of humanism.

My comfort read
Fairy tales and folk tales – all kinds from every country.

Mothers, Fathers, and Others: New Essays by Siri Hustvedt is published by Scepter. She discusses the collection at Hay festival Winter Weekend online:

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