Burly tomes bulge from shelves and barely know I’m there.
Someday I plan to read the classics. Someday I plan to traverse their pages and see for myself what raw weight they wield. Actually, I have read a handful of them — Dickens, Dostoevsky, Twain, Fitzgerald, Voltaire — but in a haphazard, zigzagging fashion. No chronology, historical context, or classroom guidance.
I dropped out of school early and started work at a young age, but I spent a lot of time hanging around LACC, an inner-city community college a few miles from my mother’s house. I made friends with some of the professors. One of them lived with the poet Wanda Coleman, and I was invited to hang out at their place behind the campus. I got to sit in and hear their discussions on writers and writing. That was where I first realized that there were myriad subtexts to a given piece of writing, and that writers seemed to be able to tap into the profundities of daily existence.
I kind of knew these themes and patterns were always there in books and stories, but these people seemed to have some key, some tool to unlock the densest texts or find some illuminating insight into a mundane occurrence. It was mysterious to me how they pulled these observations out of their hats. Was it education, experience, divination — an innate sense of the world?
I started picking up books from thrift stores and spent a lot of time hanging out at the library. The books I came upon were pretty random, a patchwork more than a definitive list. James Baldwin, H. G. Wells’s history of the world, Sam Shepard’s plays. The library became my other home. I didn’t have a bedroom in my mom’s house, so the library was one of the only places I could go and be alone. When that downtown library burned down, it was a big blow to me. I remember watching the five o’clock news — big black plumes billowing out of the windows, and all those books burning.
Later, I tried some of the smaller neighborhood libraries, but they were disappointing. A bunch of romance novels, ancient how-to intructionals, and some worn-out kids’ books.
I made friends with this kid from Laos who worked in a cool little bookshop in the then-uncool East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Feliz. Books were not always available and became somewhat of a commodity, so I’d go up there and we’d hang around, talk about writers, and he’d show me the new books they’d gotten in. He was into obscure stuff, like a German poet named Georg Trakl or St.- John Perse. We’d sit around on long summer afternoons reading magazines and bits from various books. In a way, it was kind of our own nonrequired reading. We were picking up various writings and mashing them up into some kind of piecemeal perspective. Not having any academic structure about us, everything we gravitated to probably had the weight of something discovered on one’s own, like we’d uncovered some secret thing nobody else knew. Which is kind of an adolescent thrill, or pomposity, but I’m still guilty of it.
There was an old art house movie theater next door. We were friendly with the assistant manager, and he would let us in for free. The Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire played for six or seven months and we must have seen it thirty times. We’d hang out in the projection booth sometimes, already having memorized all the scenes. I remember that it started out in a library, with an angel listening in on people’s thoughts. We knew there was something going on in this movie and we’d learned what that was from reading.
We were also listening to Sonic Youth’s Evol, Einstürzende Neubauten, and old Delta blues. It seemed like we’d found what was relevant to us. The required world seemed a little gray and uninspired maybe. We were digging into the nonrequired past (which I think was the thing to do at the time). I remember Georges Bataille being very cool at the time. Also an old hobo account from the 1930s by Jack Black (the hobo, not the movie star) called You Can’t Win had recently been rediscovered and reissued. Even quasi-sci-fi writers like Philip K. Dick were being reassessed and held in high regard. There wasn’t much talk of the classics. It was more about the stuff that had gotten missed in between the major “important” works. It was like there was a questioning and a mistrust that were manifested in this stream of curiosities forming a new forgotten canon. But trends change and perspective shifts. Works sometimes speak to a moment or fill a need at the time. And the classics still stand unmoved.
When I came upon this series a few years back, it immediately made sense to me. It was what I was always doing: reading things here and there in airports, in waiting rooms, and on tour busess. There are always those bits from some article — a weird fact, an anecdote, an image even — you pick up somewhere that become lodged in youuuuur brain, just as deeply as anything would from a great novel or film. Sometimes those things crop up outside of the great canon of literature and only breathe into our awareness for a minute. If literature moves slow and we live in dog years, this book may come in handy. I’ve found the mix-tape aesthetic works for me. The humor and the humane, the hugeness and the miniature. It coheres into some other kind of implied story or novel that we’re still living out. This is something we’re figuring out together and apart, like it or not.
And if you want some advice you’ll get only in this book: don’t fall asleep riding a bicycle like my friend Brian did. You might wake up bleeding in a rent-a-cop car.
Beck Los Angeles, 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2005 by Beck. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.