Marilyn and the Art of Reading Dangerously

Photographs of Marilyn reading are practically a genre unto themselves, as Audrey Wollen noted in a 2019 essay (see here.) Writing for The Conversation, Silvia Hurtado González asks, ‘Why do we find someone reading sexy?’

“A few years ago the dating website eHarmony concluded that profiles that included reading in their list of hobbies were more attractive to the opposite sex. Specifically, the data revealed that men who mentioned reading as one of their personal interests received 19% more messages, while for women, those who said they read received only 3% more messages.

So, is reading sexy? The writer Jeanette Winterson thinks so, because, in her opinion, ‘what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration.’ It should be made clear that Winterson is referring to a specific set of photos: those of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses by James Joyce.

One summer day in 1955, Eve Arnold, a star photographer of the time, went to find her model so they could take the agreed-upon series of pictures. When they stopped in a park, Monroe became engrossed in reading Ulysses while Arnold inserted a roll of film into her camera. When ready, she was unable to resist photographing the actress in that trance. Another thought is that the initiative for the photos came from Marilyn herself, who was as attracted to the world of literature and the theatre as she was to the spotlight. Reading was also a useful tool to combat her image as a ‘dumb blonde’.

It is obvious that Marilyn Monroe – or Paul Newman, for that matter – is sexy with or without reading. However, what Winterson is really talking about is the fascination of the image of a reader, any reader.

From St. Ambrose to Marilyn Monroe, there have been many portraits or self-portraits of people with a book in their hands … ‘Reading is sexy’ continues to be a slogan that tries to draw attention, especially in specific circumstances, but it is not something new. This very expression was created in the image and likeness of the phrase ‘smart is the new sexy’, which was used by the Newspaper Association of America to promote reading in the United States.

It seems that what is so mysterious about such pictures is the fact that reading is the most private and intimate act – ‘It is the lover’s talk, it is the place of whispers and sighs’, Winterson goes so far as to say … A good proposal to contemplate images, portraits and photos of people reading is Stefan Bollman’s book titled Women Who Read Are Dangerous, a moving tribute to women readers, which brings together a striking selection of paintings, prints and photographs of women reading by various artists from the Middle Ages to the present day. The last photograph in this gallery is actually the one of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses.”