One night an old Pontiac driven by an overburdened father of six went out of control on Avenue A and crashed into a corner building, bringing the whole thing down. The noise was overwhelming, an explosion. People came running from bars and bedrooms. The tenement–empty for years–just dissolved into a hill of bricks, from under which one solitary taillight poked out, its turn signal still for some reason pulsing red. Eventually the cops showed up and tied off the scene with sawhorses, but by then a party had begun to take shape. Somebody had a radio or maybe it was a cassette player, emitting charanga. Joints and bottles of Ronrico and forties of Olde English went around. Percussion started up, keys and knives on bottles tapping the clave rhythm. A man in late middle age who looked like a goat kept enjoining the crowd in a loud bray to “show some resPECT,” but nobody paid him any mind. Cop cars at night, with their lights spinning around, splashing the sides of the buildings and visible from blocks away, nearly always put everybody in a party mood. By now there were at least a hundred people milling around, laughing and pointing, shrieking and clowning, quite a number of them dancing. Even the cops were getting into it.
An ambulance and a firetruck arrived along with another squad car. The firemen got busy digging through the rubble while the ambulance crew stood around and shot the shit with the locals. It turned out it wasn’t even the second or third building collapse of the day, but the seventh. One in Inwood, two in Chinatown, three in Harlem. This not counting the fires. Even as they spoke, said somebody, two separate tenements along Avenue C were burning, one of them for the third time–what could be left of it? And how about those Mets, somebody else said. Everybody laughed, then the conversation petered out. What could anybody say? For all anybody knew, their building might be next. You didn t really want to go around to the back and see the fault lines in the brick face, or go down to the cellar and see the sag. You really really didn t want to speculate about what your landlord might have in store or what his tax situation was like.
Time passed. It seemed like the whole neighborhood had showed up. People in pajamas rubbed elbows with people in disco outfits. A guy appeared with a shaved-ice setup in a shopping cart and immediately began doing a brisk business. By now the cops had gotten to the car and were deploying mammoth pliers on the roof, trying to wrench it open. It was something to see, like mice trying to open a can of sardines, but it was taking too long. The crowd started losing patience. “Hey papi, you want a hand?” yelled a woman who looked like a ten-year-old until you saw her face up close, and some guy in the back shouted a rejoinder in Spanish that cracked up the whole crowd. Pretty soon everybody was calling out lines at the cops the way they shouted at the screen when a movie started to drag. The cops fastidiously ignored the backchat, just as they ignored the characters standing right next to them smoking cheeba.
Everybody who was anybody was in the crowd. The man with the crutch was all over the street. It was never clear whether he actually needed it or just used it as a stage prop. He was often, as now, seen walking normally while gesticulating with the crutch, shouting all the while. Over there, bending the ear of a young cop who was attempting to pry himself away without leaving his post, was the little man who showed up at all public functions, waving a greasy, much folded piece of paper that may once have been an official document. His cause, an ancient and esoteric grievance, was instantly forgotten by anyone who listened to two minutes of it, although it seemed to keep him alive. The dirty shirtless man with the nine misshapen and mange-ridden dogs was there–from the look of them you assumed a carnival of incest–and so was the marooned Swiss woman with the stainless-steel hip who regularly woke up everybody on the block calling all night for her cat, Gaston. Lolling here and there were various of those locality drunks–usually somebody’s brother–who got themselves adopted by the tenancy of a half-block, so that little girls bought them jelly cakes at the bodega and their mothers thrust sweaters upon them in October and baseball hats in June.
An hour limped by while the cops kept working. Soon after the crowd hit its maximum the excitement level started dropping fast. People went back to bed or dominoes or television, probably, but it almost looked as if they had just evaporated, like spilled beer on a car hood in the sun. One minute there were fifty people standing right in front of you, and then you blinked and they were gone. You could hear the music fading away down the avenue. Soon enough there were just three skels left alone on the avenue with their quart of Don Diego rum, and everybody else was spared the sight of the crushed body as the cops hauled it out on the gurney. The ambulance’s doors finally slammed, and it took off at full throttle with lights spinning and sirens blasting, followed by squad cars doing likewise. You might wonder how dead a body had to be for them to slink off in silence, but most likely they were just having a little fun.
Inventory of the effects of Nils F., deckhand, found dead of undetermined causes in doorway on Ruelle des Prêtres, Toulon, 19 February 1933.
One canvas duffel bag. Two cotton jerseys, off-white; four pairs woolen underdrawers, off-white; three pairs woolen socks, blue; one pair serge trousers, gray; one pair waxed canvas trousers, blue; one cotton shirt, white; one necktie, maroon; one woolen turtleneck sweater, blue; one serge suit coat, brown; one waxed canvas jacket, gray; three cotton handkerchiefs, white; one pair espadrilles, blue; one flat tweed cap, gray. One safety razor; one opened package Wilkinson Sword razor blades; one shaving brush; one cake tallow soap wrapped in butcher paper. One-half link hard salami, wrapped in butcher paper. One bone-handled knife; one tin spoon; one tin cup, blue. One packet letters, in foreign language, tied with string; one exercise book, covered in blue paper, three pages filled with writing in foreign language; one pencil. Brown envelope containing three photographs: woman, man and woman, child. One book, apparently devotional, in foreign language, covered in black imitation leather; one copy, Danseuses et Baigneuses, published in Antwerp, 15 August 1928, water-stained.
This was the view out my back window in New York City for more than ten years. That time (1979-1990) was the heyday of Wild Style, when graffiti truly became an artform, as is documented most vividly in Henry Chalfant’s photographs. These tags, though, are primal. You can imagine them–in chalk–festooning an alley a century ago, or even earlier. Gang tags probably go back to antiquity. Today, owing to a couple of decades of outsized police response to graffiti, much urban tagging, accomplished under great pressure, is even cruder than this primal sort.
Wild Style graffiti is a late, studied, self-conscious phenomenon, a sterling example of postmodernism in action. This sort of zero-degree tagging, by contrast, seldom if ever even gestures in the direction of art (although photographs by Helen Levitt, Cartier-Bresson, and John Guttmann show examples of it that qualify as poetry). Both are unauthorized sets of marks made by urban youth, generally, on surfaces that do not belong to them. Graffiti of both sorts aims to broadcast and publicize the existence and identity of the tagger.
You might say that graffiti is, at base, a form of advertising. In the places where graffiti is found there is frequently also advertising of the authorized sort. Space rented from the owner of the surface in question is given over to printed tags that publicize goods and services for sale. You might say that the one form of advertising is intransitive–no action is required on the part of the beholder other than perhaps to steer clear if one is of a rival crew–while the other is transitive: it intends to prompt expenditure.
So the form of graffiti that inveigles the passerby into surrendering cash is viewed as legitimate by society, while the kind that is strictly gratuitous, or nearly so, is considered vandalism. The financial aspect has further ramifications, of course: the first sort pays rent while the second squats. But squatters never displace other tenants; they merely occupy otherwise vacant spaces. Likewise, graffiti roosts on unemployed surfaces. And as ugly as it sometimes is, it’s indisputably human, which cannot be said about the post-industrial walls and sidings it occupies.
Yes, this is an argument I’ve been carrying in my pocket for thirty years. The passage of time may have made it less pressing, but hardly obsolete, I think.
Reminiscing about my early days in the used-paper trade, I find that I can become tender if not actually moist-eyed at the thought of the publications that were both produced and purchased by the raincoat brigade. You young people today, saturated in smut, are so jaded and jaundiced and all that you may not immediately appreciate the pathos of the many approaches to porn in the time before the soi-disant sexual revolution. Consider the many shadings of the word “art,” especially as applied to privately printed portfolios and editions of “exquisite” and “piquant” and sometimes “frank” character, intended exclusively for an audience of “discerning connoisseurs.” Think of slim paperback novels, published in Hollywood in awkwardly boxy typefaces and dirt-colored wrappers, armed with introductions by persons able to append a Ph.D. to their names. Imagine a bookstore of the bygone sort, as discreet as a boudoir, with a curtained doorway in the rear leading to locked glass-fronted bookcases housing a category known as “curiosa.”
These musings were occasioned by the rediscovery on my shelves of Sadism in the Movies, by one George [sic] de Coulteray, published in 1965, in a translation worthy of Babelfish, by the important-sounding Medical Press of New York City. “The book that shocked a nation,” screams the dust jacket, an unlikely encomium coming from a starchy scientific publishing house. To read the book I find that I have to reverse-translate in my head, since many sentences make no sense whatever in English but are convincing in the presumed original as St.-Germain des Prés table talk:
“But one must admit that since the end of the 19th century one is in the presence of a rise so brutal that in our times the spanking has become the privileged form of what may be called minor sadism, a harmonious mixture of pain, slight in itself, and a ceremony which by making ridiculous, emphasizes its humiliating character, followed by the double arousal, active and passive.”
But nobody ever read it, anyway. They bought the book for the pictures, half of which derive from the original and look as though they were photocopied with a machine of the era–they’re so murky you can barely make them out. All the pictures are stills, all are unidentified, some show garden-variety brawls and others get into skulls-and-chains territory. Nearly all are so smudgy and hasty and low-rent they seem much smuttier than the movies themselves (or even a decent print of any given still) ever could. The one shown above is in its own right a terrific example of the power of film stills–you just can’t imagine that the rest of the movie, whatever it is, could possibly measure up to the sheer sordidness of the image.
But to go back to the French, the adjacent book on the shelf is Lo Duca’s L’Érotisme au Cinéma (J.-J. Pauvert, 1957) which is both serious and sumptuous in exactly the ways its neighbor isn’t. Just flipping through it is guaranteed to inspire indulgent fondness for the French at their most nominally insufferable. Take this chart, for example, which is worthy of Edward Tufte’s books:
The movies are (1) The Blue Angel, (2) Ecstasy, (3) Tabu, (4) The Lady from Shanghai, (5) Notorious, (6) Bitter Rice, (7) Manon, (8) Los Olvidados, (9) Miss Julie, and (10) One Summer of Happiness. No, I’d never heard of that last one, either. Don’t you wish you could nonchalantly illustrate your humid reveries with charts so rigorously white-smocked? I certainly do.
That is the apt title of the Columbia University fight song. It’s odd that I remember it, because I can’t have heard it more than once or twice–my time there was the absolute nadir of school-spiritism, fraternities, attendance at sporting events. The old traditions were dying like bugs in a jar, and I did my best to help see them off. Still, the song’s sentiment was implicit in the university’s conduct, an arrogance barely dented by the events of a few years earlier–forty years ago this month.
Columbia University in the spring of 1968 was preparing to construct a gymnasium in Morningside Park, a park outside the school’s property line and used mostly by the residents of Harlem. Very generously (in its own view) the university would allow Harlemites–who in those days were nearly one hundred percent African American–use of the gym, as long as they entered through the back door. To make a complicated story very simple, Rap Brown informed the citizens of Harlem of Columbia’s plan and Students for a Democratic Society informed the students, and very soon the campus was enjoying an occupation and a strike. The gym, and the Jim-Crow and land-grab matters it entailed, remained at the center of the outrage, although Vietnam, corporate investment, institutional racism and elitism, the purpose and design of education, unthinking assent to social injustice, and dormitory visiting rules also entered the equation. Few people realize that Columbia’s Spring ’68 bacchanal preceded the one in Paris by several weeks.
A bacchanal it remained only briefly, though. The administration refused to negotiate with the striking students, the police came in with helmets and clubs and badge numbers blacked out, and they were abetted both by right-wing students and by the faculty, whose studied neutrality led them to block food deliveries to the strikers–their high-minded cowardice illustrates better than anything why “liberal” remained a vitriolic insult on the left for many years. Quite a lot of blood was shed. The police broke heads of people who were only standing up for principles. Nothing like it had been seen, at least not subsequent to the 1930s or north of Mississippi. If you want to read more, please see Hilton Obenzinger’s extraordinary personal account, Busy Dying (Tucson: Chax, 2008).
I entered Columbia in the fall of 1972. The last real flare-up had occurred the previous May, when an antiwar demonstration led to a Days of Rage-style smashing of Fifth Avenue shop windows. I enthusiastically attended the semester’s first meeting of SDS, only to have it turn out to be the meeting at which the local chapter dissolved itself. After that came political fatigue. I first heard the term “political correctness” then, but what it meant was that some campus politico would confront you on the Walk and ask where you stood on, say, the Polisario Front, and you knew it was a trick question–were they the true Spearhead of the People, or merely running-dog roaders for the CIA? Political involvement meant endless factional disputes, paranoia, poison. Lyndon LaRouche was prominent, as well as several competing varieties of Maoists. You can tell by looking at the eyes of the figure above what replaced political passion for the rest of us.
Despite the prop robes, I never bothered graduating, although to be fair I had a number of great teachers and happily lost myself in the vastness of the library, as well as making seven or eight friends who are still my friends. Not having graduated (nine incompletes; hundreds of dollars in library fines) did not prevent me from returning to teach there, in the MFA program, a couple of decades later. The place was no friendlier then than when I had been a student, maybe even less, since the Reagan years had infused a renewed spirit of entitlement, and the radical shift in the value of Manhattan real estate had considerably increased the institution’s wealth. Right now Columbia is engaged in a wholesale annexation of West Harlem, proving that some things never change, although today there is little organized resistance and no publicity given to what there is. Anyway, the university is now only one of a hundred entities that could adopt the fight song as its own.
Photo by Matt Kennedy.
The subject, a recent immigrant approximately nine years of age, was asked to depict his mother. It was specified that he should present her in a particular context of his choosing: a setting or activity. The resulting picture is of considerable interest. The woman is only marginably noticeable, and then only because her coat presents the largest single expanse of white space in the composition. Clearly, the subject entirely subordinates maternal affection to the far greater stimulus of commercial consumption. For that matter, the nature of the consumer products themselves is of secondary interest; the subject is enthralled by packaging, and above all by names.
Because the composition is so crowded and frenetic, it is worthwhile to break down its constituent parts. The woman is pushing a shopping cart overloaded with products down a supermarket aisle. It would seem to be aisle six: coffee, tea, juice, soda. The items heaped in the cart seem at least partly stereotypical: the protruding head of celery in particular is a trope familiar from myriad cartoons and illustrations. It might likewise be doubted whether she purchases toothbrushes on a regular basis, and ditto for “wax”–presumably floor wax. Other items seem more likely to be true to his actual experience of grocery shopping: that the sack of potatoes has been placed in the cart’s bottom tray, for instance, or the exact replication of the Fritos logo, or the prominence of the detergent Beads O’ Bleach.
But even the groceries in the cart are overwhelmed by the serried ranks of products on the shelves, which are depicted in disproportionate scale. The boxes of Lipton tea bags are nearly the size of the cart itself. (The curious symbol on the boxes represents the subject’s attempt to come to terms with the concept of the tea bag. Coming from a coffee-drinking culture, he had only ever experienced tea bags as pictures on boxes, and averred he thought they looked like “pants on a hanger.”) It is fascinating to observe the rigor with which the subject records brand names, even the ones that make no sense to him, resulting in solecisms: “Early’ Morn” for “Early Morn'” and “Chock O’ Full Nuts” for “Chock Full O’ Nuts.”
A strong reaction to American consumer abundance is typical of recent immigrants. It can take various forms: hysterical blindness, catatonic undifferentiation, at least eighteen catalogued types of aphasia. The delirium on view here, in conjunction with the subject’s powers of observation, leads us to predict that he will become a highly achieving adult, one who will subordinate all other drives and desires to the acquisition of brand-name goods. He will work three jobs, if necessary, to purchase the latest model automobile, equipped with all the premium features–such a goal, in any event, will encouragingly overshadow romance or idealism. If the subject is properly steered, he actually will work three jobs to achieve his goals. The danger remains that he may choose to rob service stations instead. The subject should therefore be closely and carefully tracked, but for now we do not recommend deportation.
After I wrecked the gull-wing Porsche I acquired an Aston Martin–James Bond model, of course–then a Lotus when my Jim Clark fixation got into full gear. I never could afford the Isotta-Fraschini I truly coveted, but for daily use I could choose among a dandy Rover (right-hand steering, which could get a little tricky), a venturesome little Karmann Ghia, and a Citroen DS diverted from the French government fleet. Then, abruptly, I deaccessioned all my European automobiles and poured every cent and every ounce of energy into hot rods. I had the bucket “T”, the chopped and channeled 1940 Plymouth, the fully blown 426 Barracuda. I had been content to let professionals maintain the factory specifications on my continental cars, but with these American babies I really worked. I spent all night cutting, sanding, drilling, welding, mounting, painting, waxing. My cars–and my planes, too, for that matter, but that’s another subject–were the envy of the neighborhood. I traded one to a neighbor for a nearly complete set of Hardy Boys books, and another for the collection of arrowheads some kid was left by his grandfather. I still have those.
Then, when I was 14, I went off to New York City, and rarely thought about cars again. For a decade and a half I hardly so much as rode in an automobile. I didn’t get my license until I was 30, and was well over 40 by the time I did any sort of regular driving. Now I drive all the time–I have no choice–but it’s been all Toyotas and Subarus, the sexless shelf models, reliable as canned sardines. I don’t have so much as a single battered Camaro on my résumé. I’m bitterly disappointed in my adult self. Yet at the same time I wouldn’t be at all unhappy if cars disappeared from the face of the earth, as long as there were trains and trolleys to replace them. Cars were fun when there weren’t so many of them on the road (and, it must be said, when gas cost 50 cents a gallon or thereabouts). Nowadays I think my car is useful and unobtrusive, and consider that I’m a fine driver–it’s all those other cars that are the plague. But then I realize that every one of those other drivers is having the same thought.
Aside from brandy and cigars, no product on the market is packaged quite as traditionally as cigarette papers. Nearly every item on your grocer’s shelf gets an image update every few years to make sure it passes the nowness scan the shopper’s eye performs as it scrolls down the aisle. The rolling-paper package, however, like its fellows, presumably appeals to aged gentlemen who consume those items at their club while leafing through bound volumes of Punch, and remain faithful to the brands favored by their grandfathers; they care that their brand won the gold medal at Saragossa in 1908. Okay, but really–haven’t those old gentlemen already gone to the glue factory, and aren’t rolling papers mostly consumed by stoners, backpackers, squatters, Deadheads? I guess we can assume that a polite fiction is at play, the manufacturers of cigarette papers pretending that their product isn’t really employed as accessory to what some people might consider a crime. Meanwhile, potheads can spend hours in happy contemplation of the complex patterns and inscrutable imagery on the packages.
I had never seen the Ottoman package until I spotted it recently at a Turkish import store in Berlin; it became an instant favorite. More than any other design I can think of at the moment, it succeeds in activating the wayback machine: looking simultaneously venerable and startlingly new, it manages to replicate permanently the effect that its modernism must have had a century ago, its modern-style curlicues blending in with Victoriana to a degree, but in their asymmetry preparing the eye for the shouting Broadwayism of the logo. More than any other brand, Ottoman has suffered no updating of any sort. Its boast of excellence, within, is printed in four languages: Arabic, French, Greek, and what appears to be Amharic. The only change is that, although “Constantinople” is printed in Roman and Greek characters along the edge and “Stamboul” appears in the inside flap, the papers are now made in Italy.
Abadies, with their imperial arms and fly device, were so much the most elegant of the brands that I, for one, manfully struggled with them for years even though their adhesiveness left something to be desired. Like the famous Zouave on the Zig-Zag package, the trappings of the Abadie pack seem to hark back to the reign of Napoleon III. Today, as shown, the import version is marred by a textual addition in a drastically ill-judged typeface and size. Most American vipers had no idea what that central word meant; as a result it became a kind of stoner invocation: “Riz, man…”
Riz La Croix, on the other hand, just became “Rizlas” in America. If you tried to buy them in France, though, you’d have to respect the quasi-rebus and ask for “ree lah crwah.” The ravages of globalism are demonstrated in this pack, made for sale in France: the gap between the “z” and the “l,” formerly distinct in the European version, has been closed up. The packaging has been updated in other ways, too. Those fine white lines, not unpleasant although they nearly obscure the escutcheon, weren’t there before. On the back, the phrase “Rolling Since 1796” appears, in English, a nod to the international confraternity of hacky-sack players.
Finally, from the archives come the Spanish-made Blanco y Negros, a package from circa 1980 that may or may not have changed since, although I would suspect some more racially sensitive adaptation must have taken place. These fall into a different category, since they proclaim not long and immovable tradition but modernity, circa 1923. They perhaps meant to encourage subsistence farmers in Extremadura to imagine themselves reveling in the sensual delights of Harlem skyscraper speakeasies every time they rolled up a gasper. They didn’t change for at least sixty years for the same reason that innocent but eager Euros perpetuated the misconceived idea of Dixieland jazz well within living memory, in thrall to a confusion of exotica and modernismo as firmly rooted in the European mythosphere as Karl May’s idea of the American West. As with all these papers, whatever was being smoked in them, the packaging itself sold the consumer a viper’s dream of otherness and elsewhere.
In this picture you see me, fleeing from my home of seven years. It was in fact a farmhouse, although its grounds had long ceased being a farm. It was a nice house, and beautifully situated. The view from the back–meadows tumbling toward a pond with a ridge behind, the valley angled to the right giving an impression of sumptuous depth–made visitors exclaim. An allee of ancient maples guarded the long driveway. The house had been built in 1904 as a folk-art approximation of the Second Empire style. The barn–rescued from collapse at no small cost–had been made in the nineteenth century from parts of even older structures. There was a peach tree, and the remains of an orchard, and a chicken coop, and a shed that was being slowly squeezed to death between two trees. Every spring the farm dump would cough up a few more things–glass pill bottles, pot lids, patterned china fragments–that weather had made to rise from their graves.
I lived there, as I said, for seven years, and before that I lived in another rural setting for halves of five years. But eventually I couldn’t go on. Other circumstances played their part, of course, but to some degree I was fleeing country living itself. I’ve always been a city-dweller. I was born in a city, fled the suburbs for the city as early in life as was feasible, lived in New York City for 28 years. I never had any intentions of living anywhere but a city, but I was lured to the country by promises of interior space–an effective draw after so many decades of constriction. Summers in the country were pleasant, and with the city to go back to when the weather turned rotten, the country was enticing. I was living in a pretty wild area then, and could walk for hours in a straight line and not see anything manmade but stone walls and deer platforms. Or I could drive and try to get myself lost, winding down roads that you could easily pretend had not been visited by the twentieth century.
When circumstances dictated moving to the country full-time, however, that specific country had a suburban aspect–the previous location necessitated a full hour drive to get to a decent supermarket. In this version of country, everything was a memorial to its former identity–former farms, former haylofts, former roadhouses, former depots, all engaged in more self-conscious, college-graduate sorts of activities. I could still have managed, if I had possessed much of a feeling for nature. Because nature hung around, magnificently sometimes: coyotes, bald eagles, owls, foxes, bears, the occasional unverifiable mountain lion. And nature asserted itself as weather on a very regular basis. And that is where I failed, ultimately. Every winter was the end of the world. It was the end of life, everything skeletal and drained of color. Yes, I did know better. That’s why I say that I failed it, not the other way around. Now I’m in a town, which is a sort of halfway house, a sort of airlock on the way back to urban life. I’ve got a tree–two trees, actually–but I’m steps away from neon, and things that are open 24 hours, and people having arguments on the street. I couldn’t live in Eden. I’m a citizen of the fallen world.
What caused me to pick this item out of the trash heap was not its title–there are better editions of DeQuincey’s book out there (if none so pocket-sized)–but its publisher. Appeal to Reason was America’s leading Socialist weekly between its founding in 1897 and its demise in 1922. Yes, its offices were in Kansas. At its height it had a circulation of 760,000. Its contributors included Jack London, Mother Jones, Upton Sinclair, Joe Hill, Helen Keller, and Eugene Debs. Its editor commissioned Sinclair to write The Jungle. At the same time, its offices were regularly broken into and its editors subject to smear campaigns and arrests on trumped-up charges. Its founding editor committed suicide under the strain. His son, who inherited the paper, diluted its radical spirit considerably–he caved in to the government and endorsed the nation’s entry into World War I, for example. The Red Scare eventually put the paper out of its misery.
One of the Appeal to Reason‘s most striking sidelines was its People’s Pocket Series, a series of 3 1/2″ x 5″ paperbacks that sold for 25 cents apiece–five for a dollar. The back and inside covers of this one list 131 different titles (you can tell it dates from near the end, since the list includes both Adult Education in Russia by Mme. Lenine [sic] and War Speeches and Messages of Woodrow Wilson). The series included books on evolution and birth control, on hypnotism and home nursing; Marx, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Thomas Paine, Boccaccio, Tolstoy, Whitman, Lincoln, Kropotkin, Zola. It was large-spirited enough to contain titles by both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, both Robert Ingersoll and Pope Leo XIII. A banker brought in as an investor during the paper’s last years continued the series after its demise, as Haldeman-Julius’s Little Blue Books. These were massively influential, to judge by how often they are invoked in the early chapters of at least two generations of autobiographies.
We all know what happened to Socialism, unfortunately. What I’d like to know is: What happened to continuing self-education? These books were read by teamsters and machinists and stevedores and farmhands and miners. They read them not because they thought the books could help them get a better job but because they were curious. They were hungry–they wanted to consume the world. This isn’t to say that every hod-carrier in Michigan in 1910 was reading them, but enough were to make the series continually expand. And none of it was fluff, or merely mercenary, or simple-minded propaganda. How many people–with considerably longer formal educations and a larger fund of leisure time–read anything like that sort of thing today, for fun? How many people assume without thinking about it that reading is and has always been a pursuit strictly for the privileged? Would it be too much to consider a connection between the rightward shift in politics and the decline of self-motivated learning?