A Literary Critic’s Book Picks

The UChicago critic names the works he loved best as a young reader and the author that excites him most these days.
  • Transcript


Question: Who were your favorite authors in your early days as a critic?

Bill Brown:  Right.  Well, as I said before, I was originally much more interested in poetry than fiction, although now I write almost exclusively, although not exclusively, on fiction.  I loved Wallace Stevens, I loved Ezra Pound, I loved Marianne Moore, so the modernist poets.  It took me a while to learn to appreciate, indeed maybe even love some of the earlier poets, Coleridge, and in particular, Wordsworth.

And then I would say, like when I was in graduate school, or maybe right before I was in graduate school, I became very interested in deconstruction.  So in some sense, what some people would call this as facile, but what some people might call the antithesis of what I do now, to the degree that deconstruction is very interested in the language of literature being interested in language, and in the rhetoricity of the alt language and the impossibility of making meaning, things along those lines.  Also psychoanalysis, but I would say deconstruction and the best of the deconstructors, I mean, Derrida and Paul De Man, and I still read their work, I still teach their work, and still find it quite moving, even though, I myself have moved a very, very different direction, although I just finished writing an essay in which, and it's a very short essay, called Textual Materialism, but it ends up being about, it wasn't meant to be, but it ends up being about something like book history on the one hand, all about objects, the materiality of the book, about other things too, but certainly about that, and deconstruction, which would seem to be its antithesis, and yet, Derrida always deployed the master tropes of what one might call book history.  And he was interested in the fold, the margin, the, he was interested in paper.  And in some of the later essays, he talks about deconstruction, about his own practice of deconstruction, as of course, always having a great deal to do with the history of paper, which he says at a certain point, one always knew it was going to be a short history, meaning that, you know, we're in the process right now of moving on from paper.

Question: Which contemporary authors and works excite you?

Bill Brown:  Well, you know, I have to say that I continue to read, with enormous pleasure, Don DeLillo, and I keep re-reading old Don DeLillo, so, Underworld, for instance, you know, I read it, and I keep -- and DeLillo is an object guy, you know?  And as somebody who also, I think, has a great deal to say about waste, right?  About the different states of objects.  And in Falling Man, the very short 9/11 novel, there's a great moment in that, early on, about 20 pages in, when the guy who's name I forget, is wandering through the dust, running away from the Towers, and then there's description of buildings, of dust, and the dust on the buildings, and then there's a line that reads something like, "maybe this is what things typically look like, maybe this is what things look like when human beings aren't around," you know?  And I remember I had a student who said to me, "Do you think DeLillo's been reading your stuff?"  I said, "No, no, I don't think so, but I'm always reading his stuff."  So, but in that instance, it was a very, very powerful way of trying to, with a kind of microscopic focus in some sense, of trying to explain what moments like that do to our apprehension of the object world.  You know, of its stabilities and instabilities of its symbolic value and its non-symbolic value.  You know.  So I would certainly say, DeLillo, I find very, very powerful.

Recorded on March 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen