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Book Review: Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt

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Living, Thinking, Looking, by Siri Hustvedt offers the reader a collection of first person essays and contemplation based on the author’s prior publications and speeches.

Well-known for her fiction and non-fiction, Hustvedt ventures further here into deeper issues. She writes of life as only one who has suffered through illness can do.

Hustvedt is also the author of The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, and covers her illness here in fascinating detail, paced to keep readers engaged.

The essays include pieces she’s written over the last nine years, from the many disciplines in which she works. Hustvedt refers to her essays as mind travel, using her experiences and ideas to move toward answers to life’s questions, rather than the intimate tell-all nature of other first-person narratives.

From a personal discussion of human desires to a description of her harrowing health problems stemming from migraine headaches, we learn about Hustvedt as a living, thinking person.

She teaches us a great deal about ourselves, even about sleep habits, yet Hustvedt takes such a scholarly tone that the reader needs to slow down to really absorb the issues she covers, and then we’re again delighted with historical anecdotes to help make sense of the concepts she explains.

Section Two, “Telling” is of particular interest to essay writers; those who admire Montaigne and his followers. All writers should read about writing in the “The Real Story” and its discussion of reconsolidation of memory, the nature of memoir writing and even the way our experiences work themselves into fiction writing. Here the author quotes William James:

“There is no such thing as mental retention, the persistence of an idea from month to month or year to year in some mental pigeon-hole from which it can be drawn when wanted. What persists is a tendency to connection.”

We also see ourselves when she discusses reading as a particular human experience of collaboration with the words of another person, the writer, and that books are literally animated by the people who read them because reading is an embodied act.

Some essays, such as “Freud’s Playground” go beyond entertainment and take serious reading to comprehend, but collectively they add a great deal to this book. The “Looking” section is a fresh look at the eclectic world of the arts, with over a dozen pieces, including a lovely tribute to Louise Bourgeois.

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About Helen Gallagher