www.theatlantic.com /books/archive/2023/04/books-briefing-susan-sontag-anthony-bourdain/673772/

The Books Briefing: Susan Sontag, Anthony Bourdain

Elise Hannum 5-6 minutes 4/21/2023

The Trap of Celebrity

It’s not easy to balance a carefully planned public image with authentic vulnerability—even the most open stars have to think about their narrative: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A man covers his face with his hands while he's photographed.
Art Zelin / Getty

Celebrities have a hard task: They need to both seem otherworldly and come off as relatable. They star in blockbuster movies and produce hit songs, but we also see them pounding a Dunkin’ iced coffee on the street, and tune in to watch them cook in an expensive kitchen. Allowing us to feel like we know our idols while keeping their more vulnerable details hidden is a delicate dance. The healthy market for celebrity memoirs is perhaps an appropriate representation of this trend: That genre is where famous people (and their ghostwriters) attempt to pull back the curtain—but only a little bit, on their own terms. We rounded up some of the best examples in a new list of recommendations this week. And when A-listers choose to reveal some of the most intimate details of their life—a pregnancy, for example—it’s a way of exerting control over their own narrative, according to the author Renee Cramer. If fans feel privy to that information, and paparazzi will try to sniff it out, isn’t it better to reveal it yourself?

The power of a well-curated image stretches as far back as the days of P. T. Barnum, the 19th-century showman who invented all sorts of oddities, including a mermaid corpse, for hungry American audiences. He needed to convince people to trust in his wonders—and in him. When he revealed he’d been lying about the authenticity of his showpieces, people felt betrayed. As the historian Daniel Boorstin argues in his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Barnum and others set the stage for a cultural suspicion of, well, everything. Any event had the capacity to be a performance. In the social-media age, that feeling seems to have only grown. Belief becomes a choice: Take two conflicting depictions of the author Susan Sontag: Her authorized biography, approved by her estate, puts her public and private life at odds, whereas another analysis, in a book about the “tough” women thinkers of her era, sees those two sides as inextricably linked. A reader is left to decide which version seems more real. The unauthorized biography of Anthony Bourdain also tries to color in the gaps in his personal life, especially in his early childhood; sometimes, this comes at the expense of his posthumous image. No matter how rich a celebrity’s presence is in people’s minds, a question remains: Can we ever truly understand them?

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What We’re Reading

A gaggle of photographers on a red carpet

Georges De Keerle / Getty

Seven celebrities who published actually great memoirs

“What makes a tell-all worth picking up is not just the confessions and recriminations inside; it’s the sense that the celebrity has an honest, grounded perspective on their own life.”


Jay Z and Beyoncé on a red carpet

Jon Palmer / AP

Pop culture’s fraught obsession with celebrity baby bumps

“Our obsession is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s lovely to be distracted from some of the crap that’s going on in the world by following some celebrity’s pregnancy. On the other hand, doing so enables us to feel comfortable being surveilled in our own reproductive lives.”


a crowd of people working in front of many monitors broadcasting Hillary Clinton

Brendan Smialowski / Getty

The Image in the age of pseudo-reality

“We don’t quite know what reality is, anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care.”


photo portrait of susan sontag with a white grid overlaid on top of it

Anthony Gerace

Misunderstanding Susan Sontag

“What we are attracted to in Sontag is the idea of a woman whose writing can induct readers into a style of feeling, of attachment, of vulnerability, while also appearing to refuse those feelings, those attachments, that vulnerability, for herself—a woman who wears her armor exactly where it was meant to be worn, on her sleeve.”


a photo portrait of Anthony Bourdain

Alex Welsh / The New York Times / ​Redux

What kind of man was Anthony Bourdain?

“He excelled as a celebrity, ready with a provocative quip and projecting a bemused demeanor that winked at the audience when he was the guest of some gossip journalist or overcaffeinated talk-show host: We all know these people are full of shit. And yet he went on to produce earnest and searching television shows, taking audiences everywhere from West Virginia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, finding a unique voice and a form of expression that managed to break through the incessant noise of our culture.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Elise Hannum. The book she’s current reading is Heartburn, by Nora Ephron.

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