- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Harvard University Press Paperback edition (July 21, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674667360
- ISBN-13: 978-0674667365
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,614,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Pictures at an Execution First Harvard University Press Paperback Edition
Use the Amazon App to scan ISBNs and compare prices.
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Pre-order today
Lesser's mesmerizing study about the spectatorship of murder...demonstrates why a televised execution cannot succeed as either deterrent or moral instruction. A significant addition to the literature of capital punishment. (Robert Taylor Boston Globe)
Erudite but sensible culture crit. (New Statesman & Society)
Unusually compelling reading, for the book suggests that the persistent interest in murder is in fact one of the threads of our common humanity, a prospect we can hardly entertain with complacency. Why murder should draw us is the question Lesser explores through a multiplicity of lenses in a sensitive and intelligent manner, abjuring sensationalism. This is a provocative, well-conceived, and well-written book. (James P. Hammersmith Southern Humanities Review)
Her style is not dense but enviable, a joy to read, like listening to an old friend. (Douglas Dennis Angolite)
What's most engaging about Pictures at an Execution is the way in which Lesser's intense involvement with her subject is mediated by a cool rationality that militates against sentimentality, cant, and disingenuousness. It's bracing to watch an active moral intelligence at work, ready to question anything, including the writer's own motives...We can read the book with pleasure, interest, and admiration. (Francine Prose New York Newsday)
About the Author
Wendy Lesser is editor of The Threepenny Review.
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
I acknowledge that literary criticism is ultimately about how literature relates to life, and that should include my life, but for some reason, I do not connect to the lessons Lesser draw from the various books she analyzes. Instead, I come away thinking, "Well that sounds like an interesting book, but I'm not sure how it relates to me or the KQED case." I am especially interest now in reading Primo Levy's The Drowned and The Saved.
One of Lesser's main themes is that we can and should identify with the people who live on death row, and not just abstractly. She seems to claim that because of our passivity and ignorance we unjustly permit or tolerate the death penalty to occur, and that this makes all of us murderers too. The real victims in this drama are the condemned on death row. I am opposed to the death penalty but not in the visceral way she is - this book did not change my mind.
Ultimately, I would say that this book may be of some service to you if you are personally offended by the death penalty and are looking for ways to articulate that experience. If you have clearly established boundaries and values regarding the death penalty, then I would say that this book will irritate you without changing your mind very much.
Lesser gives several descriptions of what she intends to do in this book, such as examining the intersection of murder and art, and asking philosophical questions. It seems that she actually wants to indulge in discussing murders and executions (she sees executions as murder), referencing whatever materials interest her, whether literary, journalistic, non-fiction, movies, pictures, etc., to no clear end. She goes off on little tangents: the main thing that she tells us about Paul Theroux's Chicago Loop is that she likes his description of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. There's nothing wrong with what she's doing per se, if she can make it interesting enough to engage the reader's interest. Clearly, by my rating, she failed in my case, although it would be helpful if I was compiling a list of fiction I never wish to read or movies I never intend to see.
Interwoven with the blather are the events and issues involved in the execution of Robert Alton Harris at San Quentin prison, particularly the legal quest by a television station to broadcast the execution. If this had been the sole subject of the book, I would have found it vastly more interesting. Until the end, it took generally got lost in the literary review. By the time she really focused on it, I was just counting down the pages. The book had no effect on my opinion of capital punishment, having brought nothing new to the discussion. If you already agree with her, you may like it better.
The first thing that I dislike about her book is her use of the word "we." Whenever I see that, I want to say, "we who?" If you want to know what "we" think, you have to survey us in some fashion, and despite what she thinks, that can't be accomplished while sitting at a desk idiosyncratically reviewing cherry-picked sources. One also needs to establish that there is a "we" whose opinions are similar enough to generalize. And in a related issue, I detest being told what I think, as when Lesser keeps stating "our" reaction to something highly specific and personal. I don't care if other authors do that, I consider it illegitimate.
She actually states at one point that when she says "we," she means "I," so why doesn't she use "I" consistently? I suspect that she thinks that the use of "we" gives more authority and weight to her personal opinions, but she says that she means "I" to give herself an out when challenged.
She keeps trying to answer questions about "our fascination" with murder, whether "our" interest is with the detective, the victim or the murderer, and whether there are moral issues here. Again, this cannot be answered from her personal interests, nor as a generalization. I personally see no moral difference in taking an interest in murders and in anything else that goes on around us: politics, war, floods, famines, literature, opera, educational standards, etc. I would consider myself morally derelict to take no interest. I find it ridiculous to argue that people who write about true crime are in some way accessories to it. Her attempts to raise moral issues leaves me less challenged to think than inclined to suspect she is morally tone-deaf, or just lost in her own pretensions.
I think that her writing reaches her nadir when she giddily tries to find symbolism in a stock film showing the gas chamber in a California prison. She remarks that the guards, the keys, the walls all "suggest imprisonment." No, they are imprisonment, unless you agree with Richard Lovelace that "Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage." The humorous writer Richard Armour had a funny scene in which Lovelace's fellow prisoners shake their heads sadly; they know what is keeping them there.
She goes on to find symbolism in the fact that the lock turns clock-wise, although she admits that most locks do, thus suggesting time running out in the life of the condemned. If it turned, counter-clock-wise, no doubt she would also find it symbolic, like a timer running down, and if it flipped down to lock it could be reminiscent of a guillotine or the drop in a hanging.
All in all, I found this too irritating to have an impact on my thinking.