OGR Series 2, No 1: Kaitlin Phillips
Kaitlin Phillips is my favorite article barker on Twitter. Don't think old-fashioned carnival barking where shouting outside about the excitement inside hopefully leads to entrance dollars, but do think Twitter-as-carnival, where every posted article is trying to get you to come inside, i.e. to the brand's or writer's site, so clicks ultimately lead to dollars. Well no one makes me click like Kaitlin. (I just wish she would get some of the pennies for leading me there, barkers of all stripes deserve to make a buck.) She seemingly gets to every quality article I'd be interested in reading shortly after it's originally posted and then, and this is where she shines, always pulls the best, most relevant and enticing quote (even when they're buried deep in the piece—no simply copping the lede for her!) from it to feature in her own post. Sounds very easy, and she's certainly not the only one doing it, but it's her speed, discerning judgment, and dedication to it all that makes her so special. I don't know if she's an unusually fast reader (but I do know she's a great one despite what she says below) or an excellent scanner, but regardless she (@yoloethics) is a must-follow on Twitter if you're at all interested in art, media, books, fashion, and NYC culture. Once you settle in with her there you'll also get links to the various au courant art and culture magazines she regularly writes for. She puts the "wit" in Twitter so read her here and then please immediately go follow her there. -Wes Del Val
WDV: If you could give any famous person a book to read and if they read it you think it would truly change their public impact for the better, who and what would it be? Please not the president, as Trump reading (let alone finishing) a book isn’t even plausible.
KP: During the onset of coronavirus—when my boyfriend was mad at me for not cleaning—I read Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo by Mary Douglas. It’s about being afraid of dirt, among other things. That’s the book I’d push on any celebrity with a brain right now. My dream job is to be a book curator for models. I’d start with Emily Ratajkowski, because I think she’s a good reader. She’s trying to learn things. And while it’s valid for her to think Normal People is the best book of the year, it’s also a sign she needs weirder recs. I’d definitely ship her I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris by Elizabeth Hall, The Flagellants by Carlene Hatcher Polite, Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara. These books will take you pretty far in four different directions.
I would push particularly hard for The Flagellants, probably because I found it on accident while googling “Montana Valley Book Store” and I tend to elevate books that I find with no help from anyone. A random hobby blogger wrote about finding it on a trip to Montana, and provided this pull quote to entice other readers: “The complexities of organization, the created outcome, the materialization of concrete and abstract goals, were relegated to bosses, green-horned, starry-eyed idealists recently hired, bookworm intellectuals living in unreality, baggy-pants radicals classified as subversive. Talking about the boss killed just as much time.” Google the cover.
Agree, that’s just a bit weirder than Normal People. I wonder what social media posts by celebrities with massive followings about weird or obscure books would actually net sales-wise. These days all publishers welcome any voluntary posts about any book of course but I’d love to know numbers. Does anyone with over a million followers on Instagram ever post anything you’d ever want to read and which you believe they actually read?
I think in general no one reads. I read very little anymore. I read the most ages nine to seventeen. Just a book a day.
What have you read this year which you’re almost positive you will re-read at some point in your life?
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. I think it’s the only book that captured Post-Trump brain. His election gave a lot of liberals adult-onset ADD. I was glued to my phone for months. She captures that frenetic “I can’t believe I still have to pay the bills” energy that permeates our lives right now.
Which three books you own do you most wish were autographed by their authors?
A few years ago I got engaged to a European, and before I broke it off, I received one engagement present: Sisters by Lynne Cheney. The copy on the cover is: The novel of a strong and beautiful woman who broke all the rules of the American frontier. Since she’s renounced it, a signed copy seems particularly valuable. I would never pass up a signed copy of Let Me Alone by Anna Kavan, though I’d prefer it if I could bid on one of the lipsticks she left behind. And Elbowing the Seducer by T. Gertler. It wouldn’t be worth money, but it would be worth something to me. It’s the ur text for a writer girl in the publishing industry. Dwight Garner wrote about it recently, which made me mad, because I’d always planned on getting credit for discovering it.
But I don’t collect books properly. I trash everything. My boyfriend actually collects—mostly art books—and he’s so horrified by my treatment of books, he often won’t let me handle his without supervision or strenuous instruction.
Ha, I’m the same way with my art books and my wife. Though I’m by no means a collector I think it’s a bizarre male brain thing involving possession and pride of knowledge and authority, etc. Probably all stems from an inferiority complex, I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s degrees of annoying to be around.
Do you have a general rule you follow before you bail on a book? Such as, the first 50 pages no matter what, three attempts total, skip ahead to the middle to see if it’s more gripping, etc?
I don’t strain at all. If I read five pages and hate it, I’ll throw the whole book away literally in the trash. My boyfriend thinks it’s hilarious, just the number of books I throw away. (I grew up in a place where you had to drive bottles 105 miles to recycle them, so it’s been very difficult to get into the habit.) I re-read more than I read just because I am so picky and dissatisfied and angry at modern publishing. Especially in the last few years, I mostly just recommend the same 15 books to people that I read a long time ago, and read all the time to make myself feel better.
When I’m book reviewing, I have a hard rule. If I’m only finishing the book because it’s an assignment, I call Bookforum and get a new assignment. I regret panning books that weren’t even worth reading early in my career.
I’d love to know what is making you particularly angry at modern publishing.
I’m angry about what books become popular. I’m angry they don’t take chances.
I’m angry more of them don’t act like Tyrant Books. Tyrant publishes totally unheard of, fucked up, first time authors that they find in like the gutter. I don’t know how Giancarlo does it. He took me out to dinner to tell me he liked my writing when I was like 20. He found me first, was the first person in publishing to do that. Everyone else followed suit like five years later. He has a gift. No one discovers anything for themselves anymore—they wait to hear who is good from others.
For what brand in any industry would you most like to do the creative direction of a coffee table book about it?
I would love to do a book for Gucci not about Gucci just for Gucci. Aesthetics of excess appeal to me.
Has something you read in a book ever made you fearful to turn the next page?
Milkman by Anna Burns. I kept putting the book down, I was so nervous. It’s like a tinderbox. I’m sure that’s already a blurb.
Don’t often see genre-fiction level blurbs about Booker and/or National Book Critics Circle award winners, so if it’s not already, it should be!
How about something you’ve read online where you were nervous what the rest of the piece might contain?
Rachel Aviv’s pieces for the New Yorker, which so often deal with staggering loss in the face of passive injustice. The people she writes about have this desperation that makes me very nervous to ascertain their fate.
If tomorrow you could steal any book from anywhere or anyone, what would it be?
There is a photograph online of the art critic Rhonda Lieberman in front of her bookshelves, but it’s too blurred to make out their titles. I’ve read every book she’s casually mentioned in interviews—like a collection of conversations with Francis Bacon—but she doesn’t give many interviews. I don’t even need to steal her books, I just want the inventory. A quick iphone photo would do. I know people who are friends with her, and I’m always asking them to invade her privacy and send me a photo. So far they have all demurred.
I get a lot of ideas of what to read from portraits people take in front of their books. I prefer to read things they wouldn’t even think to recommend. When the AIDS activist Larry Kramer died recently, one photograph circulated with the majority of the obituaries. He’s seated at a desk in his personal library. I bought a few books from the shelves, the best so far is Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Montaillou is supposed to be an appealing case study for medieval villages fighting the inquisition. A microsociety of people with “little money, little prestige, and little power.” Relevant, no? The preface, which I read online before purchasing, sold me: “Small subjects sometimes make good books. Didn’t the great French poet Rimbaud write a superb text on ‘Lice-Hunters’?”
Wonderful! I do the same thing, in fact did with Rhonda as well for when I saw the photo of her reading a thick Isaac Bashevis Singer hardcover at a pool in Miami I immediately went looking for it online. I also pretty much only study a page in an interiors magazine if it shows books, though they’re rarely emphasized enough in the stories! Others seem to be equally fascinated what with all the Zoom-meeting-background-bookshelves posts and comments proliferating on social media since March.
I am obsessed with our newfound window into people’s homes…
Regardless if you know they exist or not, whose diaries would you most desire to read before they’re officially published?
I want Fanny Howe’s diary more than anything in the world. Her memoiristic essay collection The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life is something I return to on Kindle all the time. There’s an essay on Simone Weil that is very important to me. To be honest, I would read the diary of anyone in Howe’s extended family tree. They are deserving of a documentary akin to the film on Francesca Woodman’s family.
Now this is total heresy, and I suppose rude, but I heard that all these famous Black writers in Brooklyn were fighting to date the writer Danzy Senna. (Danzy is Fanny’s daughter.) That makes me want to read her diary. Danzy writes really sharp, complex books about social mores. Her novels are like a glass of ice water that never melts. I bought her memoir about her father this month, and it’s next on my list…
If you were paid to stock and drive a bookmobile to one spot in America and stay there lending books for two months, where would you want to take it and what titles would be most important to you to offer to the locals?
I think bookstores should be arranged by personal recommendation. You should be able to walk in and just know what some famous person likes to read. When the “design guru” Jim Walrod died, all his books were at MAST, and perusing that was an education in itself. This lamp Jim got me a discount on sits on my desk, and I’m just a little less depressed to know that the stuff he knows at least survived in the form of his library. Helen Dewitt’s library was on display at Artists Space in Soho a few years ago—essential. Similarly, I always peruse staff recommendations at bookstores, and occasionally someone recommends enough good books in a row that I remember their names. I almost always purchase whatever Madeleine Watts recommends at McNally Jackson (she’s a novelist herself). I read The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner because of her. Perfect book.
Anyway, in my bookmobile, I’d first and foremost have a shelf of recommendations by Alex Carnevale, the writer and founder of This Recording. He was more or less the first to publish Molly Young, Durga Chew-Bose, and Alice Gregory on his website. His shelf would display the 100 books he recommended in the greatest listicle of all time: “The 100 Greatest Novels.” In 2013, I ordered everything I could afford from it, and read them during the years I was unemployed in New York. That list changed my life. He is literally the reason I read Cesare Pavese, Michel Houellebecq, Daphne Du Maurier, Fleur Jaeggy, James Agee, Irish Murdoch, Ursula LeGuin, Thomas Bernard, David Markson, Yukio Mishima, Bernard Malamud, Joyce Cary, Gene Wolfe, Robert Graves, Walter Mosley. I went to Barnard for four years, and I hadn’t read any of these people. College is such a joke.
My personal shelf would just be all the books that I recommend to anyone no matter their taste. Every time I am asked to list books I like, I just reflexively list the same ten to fifteen books that I’ve read many times over. If I’m reading lately I’m reading one of these. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison; Radical Love by Fanny Howe; Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann; Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim; American Genius: A Comedy by Lynne Tillman; Platitudes by Trey Ellis; Edie: An American Biography by Jean Stein; Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style by Cintra Wilson; Rule of the Bone: A Novel by Russell Banks; The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt; Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson; Problems by Jade Sharma; Correction by Thomas Bernhard. They all go down easy.
What book did you last read which when you had the free time to do so made you want to reach for it before your phone, computer, or TV remote?
This is out of character, but the last book I read in one sitting was Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time by S.N. Behrman. The subhead is an accurate descriptor of the book. A few months ago, a friend texted me to come have a drink at Larry Gagosian’s house, and his butler—they call them house managers now, but you know what I mean—was so attentive and I got so drunk and was so awed by how all this money can be consolidated in one place that I went home and, well drunkenly, ordered this book, which apparently Larry really likes, because he fancies himself the 21st century Duveen.
Duveen was successful because every time someone tried to embarrass him, he just agreed with them and laughed harder than anyone at whatever insult they were levelling in his direction. Maybe that isn’t the thesis of the book, but it’s all I took away from reading it. Well that, and you sell more paintings if you go around pretending to refuse to sell to just anyone.
That Duveen book has been on my list for years and has just been bumped way up. Now I want to ask you a dozen questions about your time at Larry’s house...
Are there any book or reading-related trends you see regularly displayed on social media which particularly annoy you?
I dislike writers pretending to like things because their friends wrote them. I dislike writers pretending books are good when they are bad. I implicate myself. We get inured, we lose sense of what is good, what is bad, and what is perfect. Most books are bad.
Alas it’s true unfortunately and always has been. But you just listed a bunch of good ones which would satisfy any great reader for a long time, so thank you Kaitlin!