Favourite non-fiction books: Part 1

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It is sometimes (well, most of the time – let’s be real) hard to work out a topic to write about, so today I wanted to discuss some of my favourite books that I frequently use for research and inspiration. I won’t be doing in depth reviews of each of them as there are quite a few. Let’s just browse through the pile chronologically from when these publications made their way into my bookshelf.

William A. Ewing: The Body

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I bought this book on my first year of uni when I got really into the representation of body in photography. It’s a handy little (and when I say little – it’s actually pretty heavy) reference book of the body covering various types of photographic practices and artists. The content has been split into 12 chapters, each having their own angle into body-centred photography making it convenient for someone looking for a reference to a specific sub-topic within the practice. And because the titles can seem somewhat vague, to help the reader even further, there is an introduction of sorts preceding the actual content of the book briefly describing the central themes in each chapter. Accompanying essays offer invaluable insight to each theme expanding the reader’s perception.

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With a lot of artists and pictures, The Body is a really useful starting point for someone who’s interested in the human form in contemporary photography. It’s like a tasting menu with an abundance of dishes to try out. Quite a handful, this book, which is why sometimes the best approach is to just pick a page at random and start reading – or just look at the pictures.

Bram Dijkstra: Idols of Perversity – Fantasies of feminine evil in fin-de-siecle culture

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I only purchased this book recently but was already profoundly hooked on the second year of university when I first used it in one of my essays. Luckily no one else ever seemed to borrow this from the library so I got to keep it to myself most of the time. About a month ago I finally found a good deal online for a used item and now it is officially mine.

The title is pretty specific about the content which is a blessing for both you and I as I cannot promise that my explanation of what Idols of Perversity is all about would do it justice.

It is the book that got me into pre-Raphaelite art and the surrounding Victorian culture. To me this is the book. It is full of absolutely fascinating research about the school of painters in the turning point of 19th and 20th centuries. Not only am I completely obsessed about the double standards of the Victorian culture, the madwomen at the wake of psychiatry, the rich symbolism in pre-Raphaelite painting and the strange beliefs combined of myths, legends, religion and science, but the way in which the author brings his research into words is captivating, poetic – and hence for some readers probably unbearably annoying. So who should read this book? Someone enthralled by symbolism, Shakespearean mythology and Victorian society in the context of how women were perceived, treated and represented in art. Maybe someone who likes the word ‘enthralling’ ?

I am practically married to this book.

Judith Butler: Bodies That Matter – On the discursive limits of “sex”

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Oh Judith – my favourite person!
I found Judith Butler at some point in university but became a full on fangirl only after finding some of her talks online thanks to a recommendation from my dissertation tutor (shoutout to Eileen!). I literally spent most of my Christmas holiday that year with headphones on listening to her talk hour after hour whilst playing solitaire on my laptop. Riveting, I know. Half of my bibliography was Judith Butler even though most of her research didn’t really have anything to do with my topic. But when you’re obsessed enough you will find a way to include your favourite author.

Bodies That Matter is not an easy read. The vocabulary is very academic and the ideas very abstract. Someone with a better understanding of philosophy would probably fare much better with this book than little me but I love reading it anyway. I’m a big fan of Butler’s writing and lecturing style (and that shows in my dissertation). She seems very present in the book, which makes it anything but boring and dry theoretical text. Even so, I can’t really explain what exactly this theory is about.

If you’re into the semantics of sex, gender and body, give it a go. Or try Gender Trouble, which is a slightly friendlier read. It isn’t at Young Adult level either but definitely easier to grasp. Judith, oh Judith. I am seriously in love with this woman.

Since I still have four books to talk about I’ll finish up for now and get into those another time. Those four are actually very new additions to my collection so I haven’t had a chance to explore them that much yet anyway. Hopefully, you got something out of this post, which essentially was a love letter to my most cherished books and authors. I enjoyed it.

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My Perfect Prison

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It is hard to begin writing. I stare at the blank page that stares back at me and continues to stare even as I frustratedly slam down my laptop screen and rush out to do something else in an effort to get distracted from the blankness. I enjoy writing. I’m even fairly decent at it, but I seem to suffer from a chronic writer’s block. There are dozens of topics I would like to turn into words but as soon as I sit down with purpose to write, the words cower somewhere to the far corners of my mind and I’m left with an aggressively white screen and an ever-growing, pounding irritation towards myself, the keyboard, and in some cases, life in general. I claim to know what is at the root of this issue, and so I should simply confront it, fight it, eliminate it. But of course it is not that simple. Why is it never simple? While I dare not call it a disadvantage, in this case knowing the problem does nothing to help me solve it; like the hindrance of many an endeavour, mine alike is fear – the fear of failure. Perfectionists are more often than not seen as straight-A-students, career junkies and generally hard-working, successful people. While this observation is not entirely wrong, it merely scratches the surface.

The word, perfectionism, carries the weight of its origin, perfect, which, in turn relates to faultlessness, precision, correctness and absolution. It must be said, and I’m stating the obvious here, that while a perfectionist’s ambition might be to reach perfection, even to embody perfection, perfection itself is not an innate quality to one striving for it. In other, more sensible words, that straight-A-student who always seems to succeed can still fail – a fact known to and accepted by everyone else but said perfectionist. And really, what all of us perfectionists have in common is the terrible, paralysing fear of failure. In fact, perhaps we are not driven by our goal of perfection, but rather by the fear of failing to achieve it. The difference between the two might seem trivial but it draws a line between ambition and obsession. I never considered perfectionism a struggle comparable to things like ADHD or OCD, but merely another personality trait among others. In the world where competition is encouraged and success rewarded it seems natural to set the bar higher and higher. I strongly identify with the term “perfectionist”. However, like any other label it easily becomes a way for me – and others – to minimise my experience. For instance, feeling stressed out I might bring it up to another person by stating: “Oh, I’m such a perfectionist I can get anxious just about anything”. What a wonderful way of simultaneously asking for sympathy and shitting on myself. When the statement has escaped my lips it’s as though I’ve given a permission for everyone to perceive me the way I perceive myself.

“Chill out! You’re such a perfectionist.”

“That’s just who she is, a total perfectionist.”

“It’s not a big deal. You don’t have to do everything so perfectly.”

Words are powerful. When uttered frequently enough they start to represent truth. They reinforce the idea that this is what it is; this is how I’m perceived so this must be who I am. As it becomes common knowledge that I always strive for perfection, my fear of failure increases. Now it isn’t only myself whom my shortcomings will disappoint but everyone, absolutely everyone. What if I they find out that I’m a fraud, an imposter, only pretending to be something special? What if I fail to meet the expectations that my perfectionist armour suggests are reasonable? What if it turns out that I will only ever be average at best? Ambition can be an incredible force for good when paired with passion, courage and resilience; unless, for whatever reason, it morphs into an obsession fuelled by panic, where the slightest misstep is a ground-shaking disaster.

Fear, like cancer, spreads by contaminating its surroundings, turning a body against itself. The fear of failure, if allowed to feast on its carrier, shrinks one’s universe into a very small reality where everything is so controlled by a looming terror that the simplest task becomes an arduous chore. In the midst of this turmoil, the perfectionist has completely ignored the fact that no one really expects her to never fail, and that the outside pressure is only her perception of how she is perceived by others. How to start a project of any size or amount of required effort when every idea is immediately plagued by the hypothetical failure at the end? “Just do it”, says the Nike tagline, but what if the anxiety is so paralysing that choosing which brand of non-dairy milk to go for, or whether to set the alarm for 7AM or 7:10AM becomes an ordeal. In such a fearful existence creativity does not come easily: it has to be fought for. Annoyingly enough, just doing it, really is the only way to stop the cycle.

The blank page has turned into a less intimidating mishmash of characters, lines and paragraphs toning down the irritating brightness. Now the only disconcerting element is the ‘Publish’ button. I allow myself to opt for ‘Save Draft’ and go obsess over something else for a time. The true challenge of perfectionism is accepting that whether you try or not, you still won’t be perfect so you might as well go for it. Trying and failing may even lead to you being the worst of all, which is singular in its own way, whereas remaining passive just gives your voice to someone louder.

So there, getting up close and personal right out of the gate. Now that I’ve minimised my own and everybody else’s expectations of this blog we can get started, hopefully with less of the aforementioned looming terror and more with  embracing Salvador Dali’s words:

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it”