Tales of the Unexpected: a Frighteningly Random Reading List

I’ve posted a full list of my Fall workshops on my Monotype Workshops page. I’ll summarize those here tomorrow. In the meantime, another reading list:

I read a short appreciation of cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in the New Yorker. His thesis, during a series of lectures in Chicago, at least, was that pop culture is a sort of place of negotiation where new, or outsider attitudes can be tried out and a “common sense” emerge. I think this is right. It certainly makes my hodgepodge reading lists seem constructive, even directed, rather than arbitrary.

I actually started this list during the spring, but it’s taken on a life of its own. And it was assembled from different, seemingly accidental encounters. Later it doesn’t seem so arbitrary. In moments stolen from my busy schedule I see a book; I grab it. Later, it winds up here, in these posts, and sometimes in my artwork, though I can’t always tell you how.

I take notes while I’m reading, usually in the mornings and on weekends,  jotting down first impressions of new books and when it’s time to post, I cut and paste all of my reading list notes from my diary. This time, it came to 2400 words. Time to start chopping! And in editing, linkages can often be discovered.

My personal diary of readings has generally replaced my studio notes, which were often quite trivial.  Reading is a great way to get inside other heads, and writing about it forces me to make connections between ideas encountered.  The original inspiration for it is Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, originally a monthly column in the Believer mag, but then collected in a couple of different volumes, one subtitled “A hilarious account of one man’s struggle with the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read.”

If there is a theme, accidental or not, of any sort to my reading, I guess it would be that I’d like to understand the roots of pop culture in 19th century Romantic thought. Victorian lit, along with the growth of advertising and industrial presses, seems to have enabled quite a bit of experimentation in cultural narrative, and by the late 19th  Century had already given rise to fantasy and genre, in the form of infant manifestations of romance, western and sci fi popular fiction. These gave rise to pulps, then comics. A lot of these low culture tropes then appeared in the expanding paper back industry, along with an increased interest in the classics. This merging of high and low is well rendered in Adam Gopnik’s and Keith Varnedoe’s catalog essays for the High and Low exhibition in the 90’s. It’s a great read that really draws thematic parallels between museum art, such as Phillip Guston’s, and popular culture, such as the comics of R. Crumb, to name just one example.

Gopnik makes a convincing argument, through timing and imagery, of Crumb’s influence on Guston’s turn away from abstraction in the 60’s, as Crumb was starting his ground breaking career in underground comix. Crumb was, in turn, influenced by EC comics’ early Mad magazine, itself a product of the Jewish humor that informed early newspaper comics and later, the invention of the comic book. Daily newspapers and pulp publishers needed content to reach immigrant populations and keep massive industrial presses busy. Later, it winds up in the cathedrals of high art. To an artist, and lover of comics, it’s an irresistible thread to follow.

Undercover: an Illustrated History of American Mass Market Paperbacks, Thomas Bonn: In a box of free books at the school where I work, I found this coffee table-ish tribute (published by Penguin, one of the pioneers of paperbacks)  on the history of the paperback book industry, especially during the 50’s when American cultural provincialism was being challenged by the growth of new opportunities in the industry, including comics and pulp, and by social and lifestyle changes. Pulp publishers influenced pop culture such as comics early on, and paperbacks are still playing a major role in the transformation of the comics industry today, with the upsurge in bookstore sales of the “graphic novel” or album format. The paperback, aside from its role in horror, sci fi and other genres, has made comics a more vibrant medium. Not to mention its role in transforming social mores about sex and fantasy. Would we have as much access to European literature, especially fringe forms, such as comics, without paperbacks? Doubtful.

TinTin in America, Herge: Tintin was one of my first experiences of Euro-stlye clear-line comics in college, so when I saw this, one of the few I’d never read, in a used bookstore I snatched it up. Herge, a Catholic boy scout with, early on in his career, all of the right wing implications that entails, began his cartooning career in a Catholic children’s newspaper in colonialist Belgium, and his first stories, which have been suppressed, are set in the Belgian Congo and Soviet Russia. They are replete with stereotypical characters. This one came later, and is easier to find as it’s apparently considered not so overtly offensive. That may be a function of its subject matter: Native Americans are referred to as “Redskins” a term that even today, NFL fans apparently have no problem with. The patois assigned to them is straight out of Hollywood’s worst years. Or maybe the book is still published because it manages to stereotype almost everyone in America, making it fairly hilarious for all the wrong reasons.

It’s certainly not one of Herge’s better tales, which were to come later, after he’d suppressed his parochialism, and concentrated on character-based humor.

Spanish Fever, ed. Santiago Garcia: A real case is made here for Spain as a haven for innovative cartooning. An outgrowth of my interest in the Spanish cartoonist Max, I suppose, but there are many flavors of comics here, and the light shone on current quality reflects on past glories, such as Marti, Daniel Torres and Mariscal. Here, the artists separate into neo-clear line cartoonists, such as Max and Micharmut; Charleroix-style looser graphics; and others exploring edgier, Fort Thunder style cartoon-brut graphics. Subject matter also varies widely, as one would expect, with socialist or libertarian political or cultural commentary a strong element, along with surrealist pranking, ala Max. Spain should be ranked right along France and Belgium as a center of European comics innovation.

Paperback books also opened up access to classic literature. I read, or revisited several Victorian, Edwardian and early Modern novels during the  spring and summer’s slower moments, most of them in paperback: I had promised myself I would overcome my sophomoric aversion to Victorian, or pre-modern fiction, so I picked up the only Henry James currently on display at my neighborhood library, Portrait of a Lady. I’d often opened James’ novels, only to sample passages of his orotund syntax, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how engaging reading Portrait is. It’s a page-turning tale of a young American upper class woman in Europe, and on the battlefield of the sexes. My longtime prejudice to Victorian, or pre-modern lit is confirmed by the archaic language and attitudes, but challenged by the strength of the characters and their direct dialogue. Had I spent more time with James, I’d have realized that he has a very modern sense of driving the action with interior monologue. He is seen as a sort of precursor to modernists like Woolf, and his dialog-  sharp, direct, pacy, offsets the Victorian circumlocution in his expository passages.

Yes, his narrative style and general approach is just as rotund as I had always feared it would be. Are the attenuated double negatives and gratuitous metaphors his own, or integral to his characters and their times? Sometimes it’s hard to tell whose voice is speaking, and often the author emerges to comment clumsily on character, a very un-modernist phenomenon. But there is far more to James than transitional style. His narrative presence ( Schmidt, in The Novel A Biography, calls it “indirect oblique”) implies both omniscience and a guy hiding behind the brocaded drapes.  There is a real similarity between James’ romantic paranoia and Pynchon’s corporate/fascist conspiracies; a real sense of interior conscious as reality, and the outside world as untrustworthy, or an impression.

This is an odd book. It never leaves its cozy upper class world ( the servants are as invisible as any book I’ve ever read), but its heroine never ceases to assert her individuality. Decoding its complex themes is probably more than my limited experience with 19th C. literature allows, but in its investigation of class and longstanding feminist concerns, and its its head-on address of Victorian mores and strictures, it certainly resonates today.

James’ subjective voice definitely contributed to Modernism, and his sense of transcending class- or of psychological “placing” of self certainly alludes to late Romanticism; Whitman, for example, or Melville, who goes to sea in the “Dark November” of his soul. Their distancing subjectivity anticipates Modernism. He also published serially, like Dickens, in paperback, an industrial revolution phenomenon which expanded audiences and created space for pulp fantasy in fiction.

Later, I happened on The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, which I’d read long ago for a friend’s choice in a book club. It is considered an exemplar of literary impressionism, and is of course a direct precursor to Hemingway. I enjoy making these sorts of connections. This was in a critical edition, fattened with essays on various aspects of Ford’s novel and stye. Book nerds, Ho!

 Virginia Woolf, an Inner Life, Julia Briggs: I laid this aside when I’d gotten through the chapters on her central trilogy (To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own), which I’ve read and/or re-read recently. I’ll go back to it again when I’ve read Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, etc. It’s the kind of book one returns to. Woolf’s themes are highly nuanced and this analysis really added background and texture to my experience with these three works, some of them first read back in post-college days.

Hedging my bets against all this Victorian and Edwardian prose, I brought home PG Wodehouse, a classic of light comic reading. Wodehouse was an Englishman turned American, and it shows in his writing. Here, in Sam the Sudden, the classes in both America and Europe have been codified and each have their heroes and villains, and not so very different from Tintin, stereotypes are no less prevalent. Wodehouse depicts a London as a massive door-slam farce, thus leading to hijinks.

If my reading list seems call to mind a literary ghoulash, perhaps we can remember  that what the suburban lower middle class cooks of my 60’s upbringing called “ghoulash”- a sort of bland melange of canned tomato soup, macaroni and ground beef, which I later discovered bore no resemblance to any sort of authentic culinary dish. I discovered this in Red Lodge, Montana, of all places. I had the real thing at a family owned Hungarian restaurant. This would be one of my first encounters with ethnic foods, if you don’t count the Italian-American pizza-place canards of my upstate New York youth. Authentic flavor can be found in unexpected places.

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