Monday, February 7, 2011

Summer Series: 2. A Book Addict Turns to Music

The following post I wrote last June while wandering around downtown Manhattan. I wrote it as a way of explaining my new approach to life being now aware of my self-diagnosed "book addiction" and also as a way to show how futile it is to separate the literary world from that of music and film.
Read on, for more:

I am a book addict.
No, seriously. A week passes without my fingering the pages of a fast-paced novel or a serious theological tome, and I go into withdrawal.
So when today I went downtown to Chambers Street, hopped down to Warren and over to Greenwich Street where I saw signs for B&N, I couldn’t resist. No matter it didn’t open for another fifteen minutes. Like a technogeek in line for his iPad or a Shrek 4 fanatic on opening night, I sat down and waited.
People started gathering behind me. It was 9:02, and they still hadn’t opened. The excitement was building.
Finally, with a bang, they lifted the ginormic steel gates and we charged in, hungry for words, thirsting for coffee.
And before I knew it, I was high. Started with Summer Reading, moved on to the classics, got a thrill from the titles I already knew—The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, Beloved, Siddhartha—and from the ones I hoped soon to devour—Catcher in the Rye, A Confederacy of Dunces, Catch-22, The Decameron—and catching sight now (walking back around, to catch my breath) of the newly-minted Nook, my heart beat to the rhythm of a intoxicated lover.
I went forward to see what else I could find.
Overtop the café tables were painted Tom Eliot, J. Steinbeck, and Willy Faulkner—three of my favorite American writers of all time—seated at table together, chatting. If I were able to jump up and join them, I imagine I'd ask
1. How they got to writing so well, and
2. How they'd write differently if living in a twenty-first century world.
And I find myself (once again) wishing I was living in an earlier time…
A silly thought: Quickly dispelled.
Dropping my glance, I spotted Kerouac’s On the Road: The Original Scroll and grabbed it off the shelf.  I lift up its cover skirt, stroke the curves of turned pages, lick up the lovely lines: "that should one depend on Schopenhauer's dichotomy for any inwardly realized ... and on and on in that way, things I understood not a bit. . . . He really didn't know what he was saying. He was a young jail-kid. Nonetheless I loved him for his madness and we got drunk together in the Linden bar and I agreed that he could stay at my house."  Uh, yeah. Wow. Powerful stuff!
To savor the moment (and rest my blurry eyes – addictive pleasures always come at a cost), I looked up, saw the music and movies section taking up a third of the store, and remembered, "This is not the point." The point is not to feed my lust for literary prose or to be nostalgic. The point is to find connections between books and modern media and to make them known.
The going assumption among literary people is that reading books is somehow an activity far superior to jamming at rock concerts, watching a movie or playing a video game. Reading supposedly enhances one's ability to think creatively and concentrate deeply. It is also associated with a greater sophistication and a rare gift for words, the implication being that people who (rather than read) play their iPods on subways or stare at TV's in the evenings are at risk of becoming brain-dead zombies. The mentality breeds a certain elitism, sparked by common clichés – "No one reads anymore" and "You can never read too much" – and a lesser known field of reference. If I quote Shakespeare, for example, your instinct is to think me more intelligent, or at least more cultured, than someone quoting from the Big Lebowski. Of course, it isn't necessarily true, but it's our instinct, the collective habit of our thinking. And I want to change that.

For the past isn't much different from our present. You just have to draw the right connections. The TV shows of Joss Whedon are like the serial novels of Charles Dickens. If you go to a coffee shop to hear some folk artist play (think, Josh Ritter or Andrew Bird, before they hit it big), you're reliving what medieval folks did when they gathered around the town commons or city square to hear the troubadours entertain. Let me remind you, there's nothing new under the sun. It might sound blasphemous to some people's ears, but I'm here to tell you, in terms of their quotability, romantic themes, and popularity, what the Cavalier Poets were for Charlesian England, boy bands like the Backstreet Boys were for Clinton-era America. And that's no lie.

Awaking from these contemplations, I noticed the end of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland playing on the screens of the Music and Movies section. Though mute, Johnny Depp rolling zany green eyes and moving his legs in an outrageously smooth jig is, as always, entertaining. Mia Wasikowska (as Alice) chops a dragon’s head off, an army of cards surrenders their hearts, and a royal crown floats aloft in the hands of an invisible Chesire Cat. What it all means exactly, I’m not sure, but it’s interesting, and it’s based on a book. No one can say it’s not a creative reinterpretation.

My attention shifted to the music playing over the PA system. A gravely female voice crooning, “Why does love have to be so sad?” with saxophones squealing and an even beat percussed in the background. It doesn’t sound so bad, but it doesn’t sound so good either.

I lose interest, and turn to the books about music. The first volume of Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles is worth a look. He talks about finding a place in New York to play his music, meeting all sorts of people, self-educating himself reading books – he’ll start skimming through the middle of a book and then decide if it’s worth going back to the start – he mentions reading Ovid, Faulkner, Poe, and a biography of R.E. Lee. As it happens, Kerouac was one of his heroes. And Dylan too was a poet.

A half-hour flipping through the Art of Modern Rock, shocked by posters of gory bunnies, floating eyeballs, devilish monsters, and naked women... and I turn back to Kerouac, to read his book’s beginning epigraph, a quote from Whitman:
I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick to each other as long as we live?
Strangely, it sounds like a song.

So… books are my drug. Music is my medicine. Treating the two as equal, we must see how they’re connected. And we will, if only we believe.

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