The writer William S. Burroughs was a polarizing figure. With his aristocratic-bohemian-reptilian disdain for the status quo and all things wholesome, he was both genuinely admirable in a certain sense but also seemed dizzyingly strange and scary. Maybe it was his (accidental) assassination of his wife Joan? His connections with arguably even stranger folks like L. Ron Hubbard and Wilhelm Reich? His lifelong drug addiction? Definitely not the best poster persona for the kind, gentle, sustainable lives we are all meant to be living these days. Nonetheless, to my mind, he was without doubt one of the most innovative writers of the Twentieth Century. His reputation may have faded but there always seems to be one more teenager huddled somewhere with a copy of Junky or Naked Lunch, or an art student entranced by (Brion Gysin and) Burroughs' Dada-inspired cut-up method. Barry Miles, longtime counterculture chronicler, has written a new biography of Burroughs and 2014 marks his hundredth birthday. Peter Schjeldahl has written a lengthy, ambivalent appraisal in The New Yorker and Jeremy Lybarger weighs in with considerably more enthusiasm in Bookforum. Both pieces well worth a read.
Benjamin Moser, the authorized biographer of writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004), often acknowledged front-runner for intellectual hottie of the previous century, provides an engaging account of his (and others) involvement in scouring her formidable archives on the New Yorker magazine’s blog. And if you have dipped into the recently published journals it becomes evident how Sontag was an inveterate notetaker, often incorporating abbreviated bits that would be challenging for most any researcher. Particularly fascinating beyond the sheer volume of paper material is how archivists are contending with preserving her e-mails. And as Moser recounts: “Susan Sontag wrote seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails, which will soon be available for consultation on a special laptop. I was given a special viewing at the library, and the experience gave me a queasiness that I have never felt during the years I have conducted historical research.”