I’ve been a fan of Camille Paglia since the summer of 1997 when I sat in the un-air conditioned spare bedroom of my grandmother’s house reading Sexual Personae and wondering at her bold, smart and vibrant tone. The ideas she wrote about were new to me and while I enjoyed the book in my early twenties I can’t say Paglia’s subject matter resonated with me or that I fully understood her concepts until the last few years.
I am also a fan of listening to books primarily due to being in a constant time crunch. I can listen in the car or while cleaning, or even through earphones while taking a walk. But I often do not like the voice actor who’s voice seems to match neither the voice in my head or the tone of the book.
I listened to Free Women, Free Men while painting my house. I ordered it on Audible after staring at the hardcover book I’d ordered for weeks without opening it. I was dying to read it and could not find the time. So when I had a day set aside to be home painting my living room and kitchen, I loaded it up on Audible and blasted it out on my portable Bluetooth speaker.
I painted my beige living room a bright sea serenade color while Paglia’s book colored my imagination in bursts of color and light. I found myself dashing down my ladder, paintbrush in hand to underline or highlight passages in the book, or to rewind the passage so I could listen again. I found myself amused, surprised, nodding in agreement, laughing or caught thinking deeply about her words. For anyone who enjoys Paglia or who wants a different perspective from a major feminist voice, this is a great book. But if you want that plus more, you have also got to get the Audible version. Here is why:
Paglia Does the Narration Herself
Just hearing Paglia’s voice is a treat. Think of all the books you’ve read, authors you admire whose voices you’ve never heard. Hearing her voice read her own words brings them to life. You hear the words as she intends, with inflection and intonation for emphasis. You hear her get fired up reading passages about third wave feminism’s anti-sex attitudes in “The Modern Battle of the Sexes.” You hear her disdain for Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin in “The Return of Carry Nation.” She reveals her own internal conflict between desire and contempt where fashion, art, function and feminism meet in “The Stiletto Heel.” What is revealed in her words is illuminated tenfold in her voice as she reads.
Performance as Art, Literature as Theater
Paglia’s love of art and performance is clear in her work. Sexual Personae is a massive book about the performance of sexuality — how we present ourselves and how we are perceived by others. I got the impression that her lectures, both in the classroom and out, are energetic and imploring. She uses her voice like an instrument to grab the listener’s attention. There is a theatrical aspect of her reading that is entertaining and engaging. I have never heard a voice actor infuse the reading of a book with so much passion, heart and intensity. Only the author herself could do this, and Paglia, being a passionate and intense woman, does it so well.
When you hear Paglia‘s reading of “The MIT Lecture” when she tears Naomi Wolf to shreds, it is almost as if Paglia is in the lecture hall, presenting the lecture live, for the first time. Paglia taps into the energy and emotion of the words to present them to us as if they have never been presented before. She infuses her words and voice with a thrilling emotion and fire.
“But this blaming anorexia on the media — this is Naomi’s thing — oh please! Anorexia is coming out of these white families, these pushy perfectionist white families, who all end up with their daughters at Yale Naomi arrives in England, and “Gee, all the women Rhodes scholars have eating disorders. Gee it must be … the media!” Maybe it’s that you are a parent-pleasing, teacher-pleasing little kiss ass! Maybe you’re a yuppie!”
If you thought a book of essays would be dry, humorless, filled with statistics, references, run on sentences and important, indisputable phrases, you have not yet read feisty Paglia or listened fire spitting, unrestrained tongue lashings! She pulls no punches at all. Not a single one! And I love her for it! So will you!
Personal Anecdotes Between Chapters
In between the chapters, Paglia shares, in a very casual impromptu manner, personal anecdotes that give context to her essays. Whether it is her early desire to “invent an assertive female voice as aggressive as any voice by men” as is her young goal as a writer, (which she clearly accomplished!) that she discusses at the beginning of the book, or her anecdote about the unconscious mind at work after “Venus of Willendorf” where she describes her inspiration coming seemingly out of nowhere or the context she provides about her bitter rivalry with Steinam, the anecdotes bring another layer of understanding to Paglia, and these are only available in the audio version.
Further, we hear Paglia in these anecdotes, speaking casually. She is warm and genuine, able to laugh at herself. There is an intimacy and warmth that is not available in her essays that are performed. The contrast between the casual demeanor portrayed in her anecdotes and the flamboyant, impassioned, aggressive voice she uses in reading her essays intensifies the reality of her prepared words as performance. There is not just information, but intention and emotion, being conveyed in her essays.
This is not the last essay I will write about Paglia or this book. I intend to paint another room this weekend. I will gather my ladder, my cloths, my brushes and my Bluetooth and listen to this book again while I paint my bedroom sienna dust. I am certain, I will have much more to think about and write about the more I read slash listen to this fabulous book.