Saturday, July 13, 2024

Shelf Life: Erica Jong

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Welcome to Shelf Life,’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

In 1973, Erica Jong made history with her debut novel Fear of Flying. Told through the eyes of a sexually liberated poet named Isadora, the book placed female pleasure and agency at the forefront, which was seen as a bold, and even taboo, move at the time. Now, 50 years later, a new trade paperback edition is hitting shelves to commemorate the book’s anniversary.

The New York-born writer attended Barnard College for undergrad (where she edited the Barnard Literary Magazine) and earned her M.A. from Columbia University. She’s the recipient of several awards including the Sigmund Freud Award For Literature and the United Nations Award For Excellence In Literature. And though she’s most known for Fear of Flying, she’s also dabbled in nonfiction and poetry. Round out your end-of-year reading lists with her book recommendations below.

    The book that:

    …I recommend over and over again:

    Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever. I love honest memoirs. People who are able to be honest about themselves are very rare. A girl who grows up with a writer father in a family where everything is about writing and then she becomes a writer despite it. I find that amazing.

    …shaped my worldview:

    My worldview was not shaped by the books I read but by the books I wrote. There’s a great quote by Toni Morrison: “Write the book you want to read.”

    …I read in one sitting, it was that good:

    Henry Miller really made it possible for people to write honestly. Self-revelation is scary. We are always afraid of revealing too much but he got it and understood how important it was to get those things down. Tropic of Cancer opened my mind to the way that books could be written.

    …currently sits on my nightstand:

    The diaries of Anais Nin. If she had known these diaries would be published, I doubt she would have written them the same way. In them you see her owning up to her sexuality. She was a great feminist, a great lover.

    …I’d pass on to my kid:

    My artist mother read me poetry throughout my childhood—Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Dorothy Parker were as dear to me as Winnie-the-Pooh and Madeline. I tried to do the same for my daughter, Molly. And for my grandkids, Max, Darwin and Bette.

    …I’d like turned into a TV show:

    Fear of Flying. Watch this space…

    …I first bought:

    I was really lucky in that my parents were avid readers. They encouraged me and my sisters to read. They opened an account at our local bookstore and it was the one thing they never got mad at—if we came home with a new book. As a young kid I read a lot of Nancy Drew. My first purchase was likely something like that. Or Enid Blyton.

    …I bought last:

    Weather by Jenny Offill. Brevity is what you might think won’t allow this novel to work yet it is exactly what does. The book is fiction but somehow reads as poetry. There is a denseness of observation that takes your breath away. It’s almost like she invented a new way of writing.

    …helped me become a better writer:

    I’ve said in the past that no book is born out of solid rock. It has precursors and parents. All women writers in English stand on the backs of two Marys, whether we know it or not. Fear of Flying could never have emerged without a complex screed about the rights of women. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was an answer to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Mary Shelley managed to write the book that started the entire Frankenstein tradition and has kept publishers and movie studios in the black for centuries.

    My novel, Fear of Flying was hardly a treatise on the rights of women, though some readers have seen it as that. My rule was always to make the readers turn the page. I wrote a funny, outrageous novel about rebellion and sex. No book is any good if it doesn’t make the reader think it is real. Readers thought Fear of Flying was so real that they showed up on my doorstep after leaving their husbands.

    …should be on every college syllabus:

    Poetry. In all forms. Anne Sexton. Lord Byron. Pablo Neruda. Sappho. Chaucer. I think and dream in poems. When I taught poetry at CCNY, I always tried to select poems that were sexy and fun, humorous and penetrating – full of all the things young people are thinking about: sex, sex, sex, humor, attacks on the stupidity of parents, attacks on the venality of politicians, attacks on the Church and monks and nuns who pontificate while they themselves take secret lovers…. In other words, young people want to see the world with all its flaws. They are in rebellion against adults and they don’t know that for centuries poets have also been.

    …I’ve re-read the most:

    Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. So much to learn.

    …everyone should read:

    Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Lessing tried to bring together a woman’s brain and a woman’s body, to show the delight in physicality. Womanhood is exuberant — and wonderful.

    …I’d want signed by the author:

    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. He was famous for not doing book promotion and sort of hiding from the media so people didn’t really know what he thought or felt except through his work.

    Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:

    I’ve worked in so many libraries. I don’t think I would want to live in one. I’d want to live at home, with my own library. I love my books. They’re everywhere. In stacks on the floor of my office, on my bedside table, at the dining room table.

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    Juliana Ukiomogbe

    Juliana Ukiomogbe is the Assistant Editor at ELLE. Her work has previously appeared in Interview, i-D, Teen Vogue, Nylon, and more.  

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