Simon Doonan: What I Read

The creative director of Barney's New York and author of the new book of essays Gay Men Don't Get Fat tells us about his morning reading routine, his love of grim English news, and muses about Twitter.

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How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts and the literary world, to hear their answers. This is drawn from a conversation with Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney's New York and author of the new book of essays Gay Men Don't Get Fat.

In the morning I dive for my copy of Women's Wear Daily. I love to read all the latest machinations of the fashion world, having been involved in it for so many decades. And of course honesty compels me to admit that I'm always scanning the articles for mentions of myself. And of course of Barney's. It's strange, I remember when fashion was of very limited interest to people. I'm fascinated with how fashion has gone from being the prerogative of rich ladies in the 1950s to now this global, demented obsession. If anything it's more interesting than ever to follow the machinations of fashion.

And then I usually grab The New York Post. We have our papers delivered, so Jonathan Adler, my husband, is sitting opposite me at the breakfast table reading The New York Times fairly thoroughly. Surprisingly thoroughly, given that he's a potter by trade! And he often tells me, "Make sure you read this, make sure you read that, make sure you read this Op-Ed." He's curating The Times for me while I'm going through WWD and The Post. I guess The Post has certain nostalgic je ne sais quoi for me because of growing up in England, where you're literally drowning in cheesy tabloids, like The Sun and the Mirror and the [now defunct] News of the World. I kind of miss that tabloid culture, so I hungrily devour it via The Post. I like to read some of their right-wing rants, I find them very funny. Because my dad was sort of very socialist and always voted Labour and probably would have joined the Communist Party given half a chance, and my Mum was like a right wing arch conservative. A typical working-class Tory. I'm always entertained by the extremes of the political dialogue, so I'm amused and horrified by the right-wing rants of The Post.

Then I get to The Times, which has been curated for me by Jonathan Adler while I've been ingesting this other fare. In The Times I love to read strange stories, particularly about Russia. I'm always on the lookout for new revelations about life in Russia. I've been avidly following the trial in London, well not the trial, but the lawsuit in London between Abramovich and Berezovsky. This clash of the oligarchs is very fascinating. And in the Ukraine, Tymoshenko, I think she was the Prime Minister but she's in jail now. So it's fascinating what goes on there. It's sort of oddly a lot more fascinating than the run-up to our next election, which couldn't be more tedious. It's very Dostoyevsky or something. It's Dostoyevsky with a bit of Jerry Springer thrown in. So yes, stories about Russia. And the photography in The Times is great. And I try to read at least one thing on the Op-Ed page because I don't want to become a complete idiot. I try to stay au courant, especially now that I'm a citizen and I vote. So I try to follow the political race a little bit, but, coming from England where they get a party political broadcast and that's it, this incredible mastication, masturbation run-up to the election is fairly insufferable and seems like an appalling waste of money. But, hey, I'm happy to be an American, I love my adopted country.

I try not to check my email or submit to any internet distraction until I've done what I have to do. People said to me, "How did you bang out this book in six months?" Well, it's because I'm not looking at Perez Hilton every morning. My husband always says to me "You're so focused, it's just annoying." But I'm only interested in my projects. I guess it's an advanced form of selfishness. I'm appalled by the idea of being distracted randomly with other stuff. And I guess as a writer your computer is something you're tied to — you know, my dad was a journalist and he banged away on a typewriter all day. It's so hard to imagine him going back to it in the evening just for kicks. It's a tool for work. So I'm relentlessly and annoyingly and obscenely focused on my own projects. Writing my Slate column, writing stuff for the Barney's website, obviously I wrote a book last year.

When I do allow myself some recreation online, of course I check Slate.com, and I always look at The Daily Mail. Someone said to me, "Is that your guilty pleasure?" And I said "I don't have any guilt about it. I have absolutely no guilt." I think as a gay man you navigate your way through any guilt and shame, and the last thing you're going to do is feel guilty about looking at a cheesy website. I just don't feel any guilt about it at all. I think The Daily Mail has been a really pungent and vital website for a while, and I can see lots of people copying their format. Thoroughly recommend it. I definitely enjoy smut and I enjoy cheese — not porn, but you know, cheesy stories about third-rate celebrities and their shenanigans and footballers' wives disgracing themselves. All of that kind of stuff is very Benny Hill and very delightful to me. So I soak it up on DailyMail.co.uk. And I look at The Guardian, usually looking for more Russian stories, because all those Russian oligarchs live in London, so they get lots of groovy coverage on what's going on with those guys.

I'm often looking for misery. I'm compelled to read stories of abject misery, of which there are no shortage in England. You read those stories on The Daily Mail about squalid violence and misery and domestic disputes and you realize it's just Dickens. You know, I love Victor Hugo, Zola, anything that unfurls human misery. I don't sit there chuckling, I'm completely numbed with horror, I just feel compelled to read it. I think that goes back to being raised in a dismal rooming house after the Second World War with my grandmother who had a lobotomy and my Uncle Ken who was schizophrenic. Being raised in unusually dismal circumstances, and going to the public orphanage every day which was our day care when our parents went out to work. So I think I need to see representations of misery that I can think, "Oh well, you know, you can survive that, and claw your way out of that and buy fluffy sweaters and live in Manhattan."

There's a drawer in my office and my assistant throws magazines in it and every night before I go to bed I yank it open and rifle through it. It's a really, really demented range of magazines that we subscribe to. I love American trash, I look at Star, InTouch, Us Weekly, all of the tabs. I hate to bitch about anything American because I love it here and I'm very happy here, but... America is an immensely playful culture, but when America gets into print it gets serious very quickly. Like compare for example The Daily Telegraph and The New York Times. The Daily Telegraph has a lot of opinion columns, people writing cheeky articles, mixed in with serious news coverage. Whereas The Times would never deviate from their position. It's the opposite. England is a very serious culture that gets very playful in print, and then America is an immensely playful culture but the minute people have to write anything they get really serious. I think that's why I have a writing career here. It's not that I'm such a genius, it's that I can get very irreverent very quickly without any encouragement. So that makes me stand out, whereas in England people like me are a dime a dozen. I guess the high points would be The Spectator, which is allegedly a Tory publication but it doesn't necessarily always strike me that way. It's very funny and very well-written and Deborah Ross writes the film reviews and they're hilarious. They often have people like Dame Edna or Joan Collins write the Diary, it's very funny. Hello magazine is another guilt-free pleasure. I whip through the magazine portion of the evening while I'm brushing my teeth. I often wish I wore dentures, then I could hand them to Jonathan and he could scrub them while I held the magazine in both hands.

I read all the other magazines. When I say "read" I'm holding up wild quotation marks. But I look at Vogue, Vanity Fair, all of them. It's part of my job, it's sort of a desperate attempt to stay au courant. I love to look at all the photography, to see who shot what, how they styled them. In addition to my work window designing at Barney's, I was involved with the advertising for a long time. And photography is such an addiction and I happily submit to it, just to look at pictures in W and Vogue brings me a lot of pleasure. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, those guys are gone now, but there are new people who are keeping the magic of photography going.

I've met all the fashion bloggers, they're all incredible and they're all delightful and they're all smart, but they're all very young, so their observations about fashion tend to be well-written but not necessarily profound. So I'm more likely to try to truffle up some old article, like Bruce Chatwin wrote this incredible piece about Madeleine Vionnet. I guess I'm a sort of highbrow person who packages himself as extremely lowbrow. It's called moving the goal post.

I try not to read the comments on my Slate column, because I think those are all the crazy people who used to write letters to local newspapers, they've just been given a whole new format. And God go with them! I write tweets and I send them to my assistant and they're sent out on a regular basis. But they tend to be little bon mots from my column. Probably if I was a stand-up comedian I would tweet. Or if I was Kim Kardashian, I would tweet regularly. Because it really makes sense for people who have no discernible accomplishments. It totally makes sense for them, who are wildly famous but have no discernible accomplishments, it makes sense. I totally get it for ol' Kim. And that's not a diss to her. I think it must be complicated being Kim Kardashian, that porn tape flying around, you'd give anything to get it back and out of circulation.

I always have a book on the go. I tend to discover an author and then work my way through them. I came upon this guy Patrick Hamilton, he wrote Rope and Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude. He actually wrote the screenplay for Gas Light. He's a really dismal person who wrote about England sort of in the '40s and '50s, last century. He led a terrible life of drink and depression, but his writing is incredible. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is one of his books and it's very gripping and extremely grim. Slaves of Solitude is very grim too, about these characters during the War all living in a boardinghouse. So I worked my way through Patrick Hamilton. Beryl Bainbridge died I think last year and I realized I'd never read anything of hers. I saw this picture of her smoking a cigarette in The Times and I thought, "She looks interesting." She was writing when I was a teenager and I was too busy going to glam rock concerts to be reading that much, so now I just read The Winter Garden, and she wrote a hilarious book called The Bottle Factory Outing about these two women who work in a wine bottling plant, it's unbelievable. I think I work my way through a lot of people who are established. Like when people say "Oh have you read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," I wait to ask people if it's actually worth slogging through. Even though I failed the 11-Plus and was branded an idiot at the age of eleven, I actually grew up hearing people reading Dostoyevsky on the radio. I have a certain expectation of a book if I'm going to engage with it, and I can't do the airport book really, even though I'm praying every minute of the day that any of my books becomes an airport book.

I always try and watch Chelsea Lately. She is a comic genius and it's good to go to bed with a chuckle. Especially after you've been reading all these grim books. You need a bit of a chuckle before you go unconscious, where you engage with your own subconscious.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.