“High time to get to sea,” Melville’s Ishmael says, feeling weary and wornout, petulant and putout. I’m with Ishy these days, but like Camus, find myself far from the sea – too, too far, not close by at all.
So it came to me, unable to put in with my surfboard at 42nd in El Porto as I might have were it somehow still 1969, to start a bookclub. Talk about absurd! Where’s Camus when you need him?
In any case, I find myself these days growing closer to music, away with words, music without words, instrumentals I guess their called in popular lingo. So I’m already ditching the idea for a bookclub, and thinking of a garage band. We’d do train songs (with a few words), maybe in homage to my grandfather who was an engineer on the Louisville Nashville Line, though I never met him.
Where did the idea for a bookclub come from? My stack of recently read books is about to topple over. This set began with Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” which he worked on through the 1980’s and won a Pulitzer in 1992. It’s a graphic novel in two parts about his father’s life in Germany during World War II and later living postwar in New York. Its ghostly and maniacal scenes are not quiet surreal, but leave a similar feeling – for it is, after all, predicated on the cartoon. It’s a comic book. The irony of that is so penetrating. It’s told in first person that shifts between his father’s recounting and Art’s narrative coming of age the son of survivors. It’s a masterpiece. And I don’t know how anyone could read it without wanting to share it. But who wants to relive it? The secret sharer puts it in a blog few read. Never mind the book club.
But speaking of music, I also recently read Robin G. Kelley’s biography “Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original” (Free Press, 2010). Monk’s mistreatments (self-inflicted or at the hands of others) are legendary; for example, the noted jazz critic Leonard Feather did more than criticize Monk – he attacked him for not being what Feather wanted him to be: “He has written a few attractive tunes, but his lack of technique and continuity prevented him from accomplishing much as a pianist,” Feather said (150). To be an original (in technique, continuity, or otherwise) is not necessarily to be accepted; on the contrary. Kelley’s book includes a good amount of history, Monk’s 20th Century environments: the causes and outcomes of the race riots of New York neighborhoods; the difficulties of surviving in the music industry; the difficulties for families of musicians who must travel to make a living; the prevalence of drugs in American cities, and the changes over time of police response; war, economic collapse, building and rebuilding, travel. Kelley gives us 600 pages, any one of which we might turn down a different street for readings to learn more about those subjects – again, the idea of a bookclub. But repeatedly we find Monk’s music dismissed by many of his contemporaries for its difficulties – difficulties which entertain rather than perplex today’s ears. Interestingly, the Beats and their poets found partnership in clubs that helped Monk finally flourish.
Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song” (2022) would make a good bookclub paring with Kelley’s Monk book. Dylan is another American Original, and his writing might strike many ears with difficulties similar to Monk’s piano. I’m almost never disappointed with Dylan, and this latest warrants reading and re-reading and listening. I put together a YouTube playlist of the 66 songs Dylan explicates in his book. Many of them have been recorded by more than one artist, so the trick is to get the version that most coveys the feeling of its mystery – that being how something so simple as a popular song can both create and evoke an entire era or single day in the life of an American coming of age in the age of “modern song.” And for those readers turned off by philosophy, not to worry, there’s not much philosophy to sing about here – the philosophy, like music theory, remains in the background.
Speaking of philosophy, somewhere recently I noticed a new Mary Midgley book out, and quickly got a copy and read it. And, as it turns out, it’s her last one (Bloomsbury, 2018). Imagine living to 99 and the title of your last book? “What is Philosophy For?” Indefatigable, indomitable, Mary (look her up on YouTube and tune in to one of her conversations) defeats Dawkins and his ilk with real philosophy – that is to say, thought without propaganda.
Shusaku Endo’s “A Life of Jesus” (Paulist Press, 1973) is a strange book. I like strange books. It’s about the Gospels, how they came to be first talked then written. The environments and people described are different from what we might come away with from the Bible versions. Here, for example, we get a fuller picture of John the Baptist, where he came from and what he wore, what he ate, what he said and did. Life can be strange in the desert. Essentially, we get closer to Jesus in the sense that the time itself comes alive. There is no question but that Jesus was a real person; he lived, in a real place, in a real time. The question of his divinity and why it has to remain such a mystery, almost a game, Endo does not quite answer, though it’s clear that he is a believer. It’s strange even to try to put this into words. I really like Endo’s book, and will read it again. It reminded me in some ways of Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” (film, 1964).
A couple of books recently read did produce some disappointment: Christian Wiman’s “He Held Radical Light” (FSG, 2018) and Donald Hall’s “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes” (Ticknor and Fields, 1992). Don’t get me wrong; I liked both books. I even sent the Wiman to one of my sisters, thinking it would be to her liking also. These are both books about poetry, about poets, about poems and how and when they might be read and their purpose and import, their meanings, and the poetry and surrounding discussion I did enjoy. What I found disappointing was the emergence of an ego, a manic wanting on the part of both Wiman and Hall to write the poem to end all poems. Silly, that. It’s easy to see why and how poetry fails to live up to any kind of popular status in the marketplace – except for what we might find in popular song, in the philosophy of popular song, a philosophy that is lived but rarely talked about.
I also read and enjoyed Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Dead Do Not Improve” (Hogarth, 2012). I had read that it was about surfers in San Francisco, so of course was interested. It’s not too much about surfing though. It’s a mystery, and accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s entertaining, provoking, somewhat in the classic noir tradition, its characters representative of types of a kind, also of that noir setup. The dialog is fresh and accurate, the scenes clearly drawn, you get the smell and the feel of the place. The plot is convoluted, a bit like a shuffled deck of cards, and then reshuffled.
That pretty much concludes my daytime recent book readings. To bed (to read) I’ve been taking Elizabeth Taylor lately (not the movie star). Reading now her “In A Summer Season.”
In the end, writing about writing is rarely as interesting as the writing one is writing about, but there are exceptions, and those exceptions I’m always on the lookout for. Meantime, I’m still working on the guitar. I’ve been playing guitar almost as long as I’ve been reading. Have no intention of giving up either, but talking about reading, like talking about music, is a different pastime than writing or playing original pieces.