Stinkin’ Thinkin’

There was a point this year when I felt good about the amount of prose I was reading; I might even have written about it here. Through luck or happenstance, I was averaging a book a week, although that was including nonfiction I was reading for work — so many academic retrospectives on popular culture and the comic book industry! — and my secret pleasure of short story collections, which I can speed through effortlessly. (Perhaps my most recent favorite of the latter is Donald Westlake’s Thieves’ Dozen, which collects his short Dortmunder stories. Consider it highly recommended, if you like snappy, sneaky fiction.)

I’m not entirely sure when my reading streak finished, or how. Was it that period where I’d basically make it to the end of the day by dragging my tired ass across the finish line, slumping into bed with barely enough strength to turn out the light and lay my head down? Probably; I know that, during those few weeks, there was a pile of unread books on my bedside table that just wondered what the deal was and when I’d make time for them.

The result is, though, that I’m back to feeling self-consciously uncultured again, as if all I can manage to keep up with are comic books and television shows. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, mind; but I want the time and brain power to juggle some prose in there too, dammit.

There’s a solution to be found here, somewhere, but I’m not sure what it actually is — my workload isn’t lightening up anytime soon, and I barely get enough time to spend with Chloe as-is, so it’s not as if I can magically make time to sit down with a good book. And even then, I need to find the right good books, something that’ll keep my interest but let me dip out when necessary, something to make me obsessed but not too obsessed. Dear reader, I want to be a dear reader, if only I could find the time, thought power, and subject matter to make it happen.

Never Get Too Cool

Reading Bobby Gillespie’s memoir Tenement Kid has been a joy this week; it’s not that it’s a particularly well-written book (it’s not), or that Gillespie’s childhood was either unique enough to be fascinating or so similar to mine as to create a bond, but instead that he’s clearly being honest and thrilled by his own history, sharing memories and old loves and grudges alike with equal affection. It’s a surprisingly charming, unaffected, read that feels like the perfect balm after a busy day of thinking too hard.

It’s also something that, even though my experience barely mirrors his — I was born more than a decade later and in less violent surroundings, for one thing — triggers my own nostalgia in unexpected ways. He writes about the record shops he haunted as a teenager getting into the punk scene, and I’m launched into a pleasant reverie about places like Rhythmic Records and FOPP that I’d make weekly trips to when I hit the same age, excitedly flipping through the racks looking for something surprising and essential. He shares his passions for bands that unlocked parts of his brain and made things more possible, and I can remember my own version of the same experience with other bands, including his own Primal Scream. (The circle of life, I guess.)

At one point, he mentions offhandedly sitting in Glasgow and having lunch on his own, away from the other students in his college course, because he wanted to check out record stores at the same time. Reading that, I remembered the year I spent in community college after high school. Getting there meant going through Glasgow, and every Friday, I’d make it a point to get to a comic shop and pick up that week’s new releases; it felt like an unlikely, entirely welcome, side effect of college — a new freedom, in some way, at a time when little else felt free.

I hadn’t thought about that in years, before this book. Remembering it again was like unlocking a hidden building block of where I ended up, and who I became.

Without Pictures

Entirely by accident, I seem to have fallen back into reading prose after a significant period where that wasn’t really true. I am, to be blunt, fucking thrilled about this.

Just as I can’t really explain why I stopped in the first place — two of the causes were that my brain wasn’t in the right place to have that kind of sustained concentration across however many nights it would take to complete a book, and the earliest days of COVID lockdown meant that the library was off-limits, but that feels like just the tip of an undefined iceberg, if I’m being honest — I couldn’t really tell you what made me go back or how it happened. And yet, here I am.

Without trying, I appear to have made it through a book a week for the first month of the year. They’re not all necessary good books — I read a 300+ page collection of essays on transmedia storytelling as research for something I’m doing for work, for example — and even the ones I enjoyed weren’t necessarily quality storytelling. I’m looking at you, Star Trek: The Next Generation Warped, which is essentially just a joke book making fun of ST:TNG for a few hundred pages. It is, however, a lot of fun for those of us who grew up on that show, and are perfectly aware of its many flaws. (It’s also written by the showrunner for the wonderful Star Trek: Lower Decks, if that acts as a recommendation to anyone.)

I defend myself by pointing out that I also completed the mammoth Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, which is an almost 1,000-page long oral history of the cable channel filled with all kinds of interesting and occasionally amusing information about television across the last 50 years or so. Surely that counts as more than one book, given just how fucking long it is? Viewed through that lens, maybe I’ve been reading even more than I thought, allowing me to feel especially smug about myself for just this once. Look at me, reading prose and enjoying it like a big boy!

(The other books I didn’t mention but read were two critical books about comics, and specifically, Alan Moore-related topics: Poisoned Chalice, about the history of Marvelman and Miracleman, and The British Invasion, a fun analysis and comparison of the work and careers of Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman. What can I say? I’m a nerd.)

Only A Certain Few Remember The Nexus

I’m reading Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How One Person Became A User at night these days. I’m enjoying it, for the most part, although it’s making me curiously nostalgic for my own days where I first stumbled onto the internet and explored what was, at the time, called “cyberspace” with something approaching sincerity.

Like many, if not most, of my peers in terms of age, the internet was something I first explored at school — I can remember my art school hooking us all up with accounts that required ridiculously complicated logins that included our names and some arcane numerical sequences that I’d written down in multiple locations just in case, and I can remember getting confused by just how to move around the nascent internet and find anything I actually wanted to read, but nonetheless being extraordinarily excited by the whole thing, just because.

I can also remember finding communities for the first time on this weird internet place, and having what might have been my first major cases of imposter syndrome as a result: Look at all these people talking about comics that I love, they’re all so much smarter than me and have all this insider information, oh my God, I can’t interact with them, can I? (This is still applicable today, especially when I read particularly well-written comics crit.)

Even with this imposter syndrome, even with the fact that, back then, just getting online with anything resembling a regularity to log into to these communities was a task in and of itself, the very existence of those sites, those societies of people who were like me, just a little bit better at it than I was, proved to be endlessly, immeasurably important to the me I was at the time. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them, or even more, who I’d be.

I suspect I’d be far less happy or fulfilled. I suspect I’d be a lesser person. So, yeah; reading Lurking has been an unexpected experience, at once educational on an objective level, but also like reliving something impossible to describe in an emotional, subjective way. I’d recommend it, but far more than usual, your mileage may vary.

Please Don’t Put Your Life In The Hands of a Rock and Roll Band

I’ve been re-reading Bill Drummond’s 45 lately, off-and-on, and feeling the strange effects that come from revisiting something that has such a strong sense of place and time attached to it in my head.

As I’ve written before, 45 was something I discovered pretty much by accident when I was nearing the end of my art school career and already thinking of myself as a writer instead of any kind of graphic designer or visual artist; I liked the packaging of the original release, when I found it in a bookstore by chance — a 7 inch square book, just like the dimensions of a vinyl single, which would need to be played at 45RPM. I bought it after skimming the first few pages, having no idea just how much the mixture of pop history and personal digression would both appeal to me and form a basis for the kind of thing I wanted to write myself in later life.

I met Drummond not long afterwards; he came to do a talk at the arts organization I was involved in, and I remember just being afraid of speaking to him, because I was that in awe of him. The idea that he could make a living writing like that seemed impossible, and something I desperately wanted for myself.

More than anything, it’s been that meeting that I’ve been thinking about through this re-read. I remember clearly thinking that Drummond had everything figured out, and that this only made sense because, as I thought then, Drummond was in his mid-40s! Of course everything had fallen into place by that point! Of course he had all the answers!

From childhood through probably my late 20s, honestly, the idea of being 40 or above was some kind of marker of adulthood that defined having sorted your shit out. I remember my parents turning 40 when I was a kid, and how it seemed like “parent” age. Drummond was writing about hitting his mid-40s exactly, and so I just put all this pressure on him in my head to be an avatar of artistic success, projecting all manner of… everything onto the poor man.

Looking back at it now, I realize that he probably wasn’t making a living from his writing, but from making personal appearances and whatever royalties he was getting from his musical career; I read the stories again and notice his failures and failings in a way I didn’t the first time around, and see that he was writing about his flaws and his own anxieties and fears about throwing his life away on pop… something I only was vaguely aware of before, but now feel all too clearly.

45 is a book that’s growing with me, although perhaps that’s because I wasn’t smart enough to pick up what it was putting down before. Either way, I’m glad to be older and wiser on this go-through.

Whatever You Do

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the lost art of changing your mind, especially in critical scenarios. Part of this comes from revisiting movies that I’ve previously liked and found wanting years later — not least of which being the theatrical version of Justice League, which I rewatched for work reasons and realized was so uneven and disjointed that I couldn’t believe that I’d ever thought it was, you know, fine — as well as going back to things I’d believed were lacking, only to find new value and strength after the fact.

Maybe it’s because I work online, and exist in those spaces — not just my work spaces, but also social media as a whole — that I feel as if it’s difficult to come out and say, “that earlier take I had, I disagree with now.” There’s a pressure to entirely dedicate yourself to your opinion and valiantly defend it, no matter what, I feel; the idea that liking something or disliking it to the degree that every single opinion becomes a potential hill to die on, no matter how trivial. Perhaps it’s old age talking, but I feel like it’s not overly ridiculous to be okay with deciding that the superhero movie you thought was cool five years ago is actually a bit shit, on reflection.

This is, of course, dangerous thing to admit out loud; by being an online culture writer, it’s basically an announcement that I have critical opinions that others should pay attention to, and going back to those opinions after the fact to say that, on reflection, maybe I was wrong, might undercut the very purpose of the whole thing. Aren’t we supposed to be, if not infallible, then at least unchanging?

But, again, that feels like a fault. There is value in changing your mind, and re-evaluating your opinions on art at a later date, even if it’s just discovering new favorites to love from that point on. Or accepting that Justice League could never be as strong as I wanted it to be.

Not a Sports Page, Not a Magazine

A stray comment from a friend recently has been stuck inside my brain for the last few days, bouncing around as if it contains more weight and truth than initially appears. We were talking about his Thanksgiving break, and just how he filled five days off in a house by himself, and he said something along the lines of, “And I can’t even manage to read books anymore, my concentration is so shot.”

I used to read a lot. A lot. I’d get through books at breakneck speed, with a pile of comics to accompany them always at the ready, either literally or virtually. It was something that, if I didn’t exactly pride myself on, then I was at least proud of — not the number of books read, per se, but that I was constantly taking in new ideas, new information, and feeding my brain. Reading, as the slogan goes, is fundamental, and I was excited and happy to be someone who read a lot.

This year has wrecked that. Specifically, it’s wrecked my reading concentration — or, perhaps, my ability to concentrate for the extended periods necessary to read — to the point where I’ve only managed to complete a handful of books, and even those have felt more like a struggle than I’d like to admit.

It’s not that I don’t want to read. It’s that my brain likes to distract me when I do — reminding me of other things I should or could be doing, other things I should thinking or asking or or or — and so, reading becomes difficult. This is specifically related to the concept of reading for pleasure, I should add; I have likely read more for work, or read more news and analysis in the name of “feeling informed,” than usual across the last 12 months. My word count, such as it is, is likely the same, but it’s purpose is entirely different.

I’m sad about that; I miss reading for fun. I miss feeding those new ideas into my head, even if they were trashy, shitty ideas. (Especially then.) It’s oddly comforting to know that I’m seemingly not alone in having this problem, but still: I hope that I can learn to read more books again next year.

Cancellation Notice

So, I cancelled my New York Times subscription.

I’d subscribed digitally just after Trump was inaugurated, in part because I wanted to support journalism in an era that would need journalism, and also because I knew realistically that I’d want access to more than the 10 articles a month limit you get without a subscription. I wasn’t the biggest Times booster, even though I enjoyed a bunch of writers there (and particularly enjoyed their podcasts, too; The Daily was a must every day for a long time), but it felt important to finally sign up to the Times as an accompaniment to my already present Washington Post subscription.

(I’d been a Post subscriber for longer for two reasons; I prefer that paper’s political coverage by far, and the digital subscription was far, far cheaper. The Times subscription felt overpriced for what I was getting out of it, to be honest.)

I stayed a Times subscriber through multiple concerns about coverage and weakness in both reporting and editorial point of view; sure, my readership of it dropped to almost non-existent outside of the big stories, but I was still supporting journalism, dammit! As a journalist myself, it was a point of principle, even when the journalism being practiced didn’t seem to uphold the principles I would’ve wanted it to. And then the Tom Cotton op-ed ran.

There’s so much about that op-ed and the circumstances of its creation and publication that are, to say the least, troubling, that came out in the days after its publication — that the section editor didn’t read it prior to publishing, that it was pitched to Cotton by the paper, that it didn’t go through fact checks and was subsequently found to fall under the paper’s own journalistic standards — but for me, even just seeing the headline “Send In The Troops” was enough. It was time to cancel.

(The piece was trash, of course, but it was lying, dangerous trash calling for martial law in a public venue that should not, under any circumstances, publish such inflammatory bullshit at a time like now. Days later, I’m still incandescent with anger over how irresponsible the piece was, how drastically the Times failed in not only allowing it to run, but commissioning it in the first place.)

There’s a whole process you have to go through in order to cancel your Times subscription, it turns out; it’s not like you can just click a button. In total, it took me an hour or so, and an online chat with someone called Eric to shut it down. What stands out about the whole thing, though, was Eric’s response when I told him why I was cancelling. He dropped the attempts to keep me by lowering the price or offering additional add-one, and just thanked me for being “an important voice for change.”

When even your sales staff think some things are worth cancelling over, that’s probably a sign you’ve fucked up, surely.

Please Excuse Me While I Hide Away

I’m reminded of that adage about most plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, except that, in this case — as in most, let’s be honest — the enemy in question happens to be reality. So it goes.

Thanks to the suggestion of podcast partner and all-round good egg Jeff Lester, I decided at the start of the year to keep track of what I’ve been reading. He’s been doing this for some time, and I was, if not jealous of his organizational skills, at least curious to see if I could do something similar given (a) how much I read, and (b) how casually (read, “chaotic”) said reading tends to be. If nothing else, I thought, it’ll be an interesting exercise.

Within a week, I’d lost track of the whole thing.

The trick, I realized fairly early, was that I needed to update pretty immediately; trying to reconstruct after a week, going on my digital footprint and a pile of things by my bed wasn’t going to cut it, as much as I still hoped otherwise. If nothing else, that ignored the random comic issues that would accompany me into the bathroom in the middle of the day, or the glance-throughs first thing in the morning or last thing at night that turn into reading binges.

(And that’s ignoring the things I end up reading for work that I always fail to remember, because they are for work; if you knew how many issues of Birds of Prey and related comics I’ve read in the last month…!)

Instead, my list for January is… simultaneously lengthy and threadbare, missing all manner of things that I’ve simply forgotten. Not the finest start to the experiment, but then, January wasn’t the finest start to the year in general. This month, I’ve been better about things (I think), and the picture it’s painting is… pretty much what I’d expected, in terms of how uneven and random my reading has turned out.

I think, in a strange way, that’s a plus. I’m a flighty reader, curious and unable to sit still for too long, and this is definitely reflected in my lists, but that hummingbird nature fits my work, and lets me turn away towards something fun when necessary. If I keep this up, it’ll be interesting to see what trends emerge over the year as a whole.

Hello Hello Hello

Last week, it was the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, something that took me by surprise — the anniversary, I mean, although it’s not as if I’d expected his death when it happened, either. Today is the anniversary of the discovery of his body; I’d never realized there was such a gap between death and discovery before.

As always happens in situations like this, the media was filled with reminiscences of where I was when I heard the news or how important Cobain was to me, to remind those who were there of how young and vital they used to feel, and to educate those who weren’t about who Kurt Cobain was.

I wasn’t really a Nirvana fan, although that was slowly changing when he died. Weirdly, I had a copy of In Utero, even though I didn’t own Nevermind, but beyond “Serve the Servants” and it’s ersatz Beatles riffing, I hadn’t listened that often. Nirvana felt part of the cultural conversation and I was curious, but not a believer, per se.

My main memory of Cobain’s death is, I suspect, a false one. Somehow, I remember myself in my hometown with a copy of the Melody Maker for that week, filled with tributes and memorials, reading through it and feeling a sadness not specifically about Cobain’s death but about not feeling the grief and loss as intently as others. I felt as if I was missing out, excluded from a moment that was momentous and important, purely because I didn’t get the music, or the band, in the “right” way.

Looking back now, I feel like Cobain’s death was in some way an early echo of Elliott Smith’s — that was the death that impacted me, that ripped my heart out and still saddens me deeply to this day. Maybe there’s only one musician whose death feels like a loss in your family for each person, and Cobain was too early for me. Maybe I was never a grunge fan. Or perhaps I was simply an outsider to the outsider genre.

I still read the thinkpieces and op-eds this month. It’s just that they remembered a time I was there for, but never really a part of.