The best books on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

Sallie Tisdale Author Of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze
By Sallie Tisdale

Who am I?

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in ambiguity and ambivalence. How does that apply to the self? What does it mean to present myself to others? How do I appear to the world and how close is that to what I see myself to be? Are we ever truly seen—or willing to be seen? In a world where cameras exist everywhere and we are encouraged to record rather than simply be, how do we look in a mirror? Hannah Arendt said that we could tell reality from falsehood because reality endures. But I feel that nothing I experience endures; nothing remains the same, including the reflection. If anything lasts, it may be my own make-believe. Everything I write is, in some way, this question. Who is that?

I wrote...

The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

By Sallie Tisdale,

Book cover of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

What is my book about?

Reality television is easy to dismiss, but it is one of the most popular entertainments in the world. Despite a long history of sexist and racist casting and appalling cultural appropriation, Survivor thrives. As it approaches its 41st season in twenty years, the show remains wildly popular, franchised into many languages. The players watch each other, the cameras watch the players, we watch the show even as it absorbs its fans like an amoeba. Survivor is a superb example of how our culture has become one of the endless gaze. We live, watch, and imagine ourselves onscreen and off, and cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends.

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The books I picked & why

About Looking

By John Berger,

Book cover of About Looking

Why did I love this book?

This is a book of essays about the act of looking, especially looking at photographs and paintings and animals and other people. Thus these are essays about history, memory, suffering, beauty, and the self. Berger had a generous spirit; he wrote often about the lives of peasants and spent the last forty years of his life in rural France. Berger gazed upon the world in all its forms with composure and curiosity. 

By John Berger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked About Looking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a novelist, essayist, and cultural historian, John Berger is a writer of dazzling eloquence and arresting insight whose work amounts to a subtle, powerful critique of the canons of our civilization. In About Looking he explores our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. How do the animals we look at in zoos remind us of a relationship between man and beast all but lost in the twentieth century? What is it about looking at war photographs that doubles their already potent violence? How do the nudes of Rodin betray the threats to…

Book cover of Autobiography of a Face

Why did I love this book?

Grealy lost her jaw to cancer when she was a young girl and endured many reconstructive surgeries. Her facial deformities and how people reacted to her appearance determined the course of her life and art. “I was my face, I was ugliness. . . .Everything led to it, everything receded from it—my face as personal vanishing point.” Grealy was a hard person to befriend (I knew her briefly), and she died of an accidental overdose after many years of addiction to pain medication. The work she left behind is not easily forgotten.

By Lucy Grealy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Autobiography of a Face as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book

"Grealy has turned her misfortune into a book that is engaging and engrossing, a story of grace as well as cruelty, and a demonstration of her own wit and style and class."—Washington Post Book World

“It is impossible to read Autobiography of a Face without having your consciousness raised forever.” – Mirabella

In this celebrated memoir and exploration of identity, cancer transforms the author’s face, childhood, and the rest of her life.

At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her…

Book cover of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Why did I love this book?

Being present in the world is “a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery.” Goffman, a social anthropologist, wrote several books about social relationships, considering how we show ourselves in the office, in risky situations, in institutions, and in more intimate meetings. Is it possible to be present with another without in some way performing? Are we ever completely authentic? His answers to these questions are fascinating and disturbing.

By Erving Goffman,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the defining works of twentieth-century sociology: a revelatory analysis of how we present ourselves to others

'The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing ... it is a dramatic effect'

How do we communicate who we are to other people? This landmark work by one of the twentieth century's most influential sociologists argues that our behaviour in social situations is defined by how we wish to be perceived - resulting in displays startlingly similar to those of actors in a theatrical performance. From the houses and clothes that we use as 'fixed props' to…

Book cover of Life of the Mind: One/Thinking, Two/Willing

Why did I love this book?

The relentless and erudite work of Arendt never ceases to challenge me. In the books included here—Thinking and Willing—she explores what it means that the self knows itself to be a self, and how that knowledge refracts and splits upon encountering others, and then changes when returning to solitude again. I read her knowing that she has not just considered but felt her ideas. “To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display. . . .Up to a point we can choose how to appear to others.”

By Hannah Arendt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life of the Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The most intriguing…and thought-provoking book that Hannah Arendt wrote (The New York Times Book Review), The Life of the Mind is the final work by the political theorist, philosopher, and feminist thinker.This fascinating book investigates thought itself as it exists in contemplative life. In a shift from Arendt's previous writings, most of which focus on the world outside the mind, this is an exploration of the mind's activities she considered to be the most fundamental. The result is a rich, challenging analysis of human mental activity in terms of thinking, willing, and judging.


By Andrea Long Chu,

Book cover of Females

Why did I love this book?

A short, powerful investigation of how we construct and succumb to the lies of gender. Chu explores our fears of desire and how we allow politics to corrupt identity, believing gender to be so constructed that it can only be given and not created. Female is a quality we all carry, whatever label we use. Chu forces the reader to look in the mirror with a question instead of a statement, always uncertain about who that person really is. 

By Andrea Long Chu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Females as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Everyone is female, and everyone hates it."

So begins Andrea Long Chu's genre-defying investigation into sex and lies, desperate artists and reckless politics, the smothering embrace of gender and the punishing force of desire.

Drawing inspiration from a forgotten play by Valerie Solanas-the woman who wrote the SCUM Manifesto and shot Andy Warhol-Chu aims her searing wit and surgical intuition at targets ranging from performance art to psychoanalysis, incels to porn, and even feminists like herself. Each step of the way she defends the indefensible claim that femaleness is less a biological state of women and more a fatal existential…

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