Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press, 2017) by Deborah Nelson, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of English and chair of the Department of English at the University of Chicago.
Deborah Nelson’s fascinating book Tough Enough looks at a group of challenging 20th century writers (and a photographer)—Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion—who were all committed in various ways to moral and aesthetic “toughness.” Our conversation was occasioned by the death of Joan Didion in December 2021. Her passing also prompted the Classic Book Discussion at the Library to take on a recent three part career-retrospective series on Didion, from her early essays in the collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, to the political reporting and novels of her middle period, through to her bestselling memoirs of grief The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Deborah Nelson and Tough Enough help us put Didion in context. These women, Nelson writes, were self-consciously “unsentimental” in their approach to addressing the suffering and horrors of the 20th century and critics were often scandalized by the extremity of their tone or positions because they were women. Our conversation uses the thinking of these writers (and the example of Joan Didion in particular) to examine unsentimental sensibilities and the “costs and benefits of these alternatives” to common ideas about literature, art, empathy, feeling, and suffering. Whether you are a fan of Joan Didion, a member of our book discussion, or one of our many listeners near or far, this conversation is a fascinating resource for thinking anew.
You can check out Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil here at the Library, or find many other books by and about these writers. You can also find the book through The University of Chicago Press. Tough Enough won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for Best Book of 2017 and the Gordan Laing Prize in 2019 for the most distinguished contribution to the University of Chicago Press by a faculty member.
If you liked this episode, you may enjoy our 2019 conversation with cartoonist Ken Krimstein on his book The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt.
The Deerfield Public Library Podcast is hosted by Dylan Zavagno, Adult Services Coordinator at the library. We welcome your comments and feedback--please send to: firstname.lastname@example.org. More info at: http://deerfieldlibrary.org/podcast