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                                       politics + culture

Saturday, June 17, 2006

paperbacks and cassette tapes

There was a time...what seems to be a fucking long time ago...when someone could hand me a paperback or a cassette tape and rock my little junior high mind.

I remember my friend Everett passing on his brother's cassette copy of Magical Mystery Tour and listening...cluelesslessly at first and then with increasing wonder, over and over again...to John Lennon's Strawberry Fields. Stop. Rewind. Play. Stop.

Or the time a schoolteacher loaned me a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions.

Cracking that paperback meant entering headlong into Vonnegut's pathetic, delicious, cynical world; it was like Vonnegut was leaning over my shoulder, vodka on his breath, more than a little sad to have to disabuse me of my dewy ideals.

A paperback is a discrete thing. It's physical. When I was thirteen and hungry for anything new...for dispatches from what we used to call the "real world" before that term became a TV show...a paperback was a way out and a way in. You could put it in your pocket. You could lose yourself.

I remember walking into a bookstore in my home town...and the SMELL of that fucking place was almost like a perfume...the dark rows of books, the musty carpeting, the creaking floorboards. I spent hours in bookstores. I lost myself in possibilities.

Bookstores were houses of the arcane where I first encountered Pablo Neruda, Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That these writers existed, that they could conjure the stories and images they did, was, literally, magic to me.

Now, as an adult I might reread Carson McCullers The Heart is Lonely Hunter...or Wallace Steven's poem The Emperor of Ice Cream...I might find the edition of Ray Bradbury's the Martian Chronicles with the haunting line drawings. But none of those books today would have the impact that these works had on my young mind. The world inside a book had its own gravitational pull then. It's own reality. The world of a book was at once a pure field of the imagination and a space with a kind of terrifying specificity...a new terrain. Books, like music, sucked me in.

A paperback. A cassette tape. These were things you could pass around. Portal mechanisms. Access passes. Tickets to the unknown.

Delmore Schwartz. Rainer Maria Rilke. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Grandmaster Flash.

For me, these names are talismans from my teenage years. These were the messengers who brought news of a broader world. These were witnesses and prophets who had walked the streets of cities that I intended to call home.

Like all nostalgia, however, this view is distorted in the cracked glass of my memory's mirror. Layers of ulterior motives and wishful thinking confuse the way back.

What I want now is not so much the specific experience of any of these works; I've tried that, it's not available to me. What I want is the openess, the shock, the apprehensive force of coming to terms with a new experience that I used to get from reading and listening.

I want to recapture what it felt like to crack a paperback back in the day...I want to revisit those virginal moments of fervor and bliss before Kurt Vonnegut had his way with me.


  • I still have my copy of On the Road from an American Lit class in Community College, 1987. I had just bought my first motorcycle, turned 21, and here was a class where I got to read (Hell, was required to read) Kerouac. Trough all the moves I've made over the years, that book has always, Always, been in the Must-Take box.

    I'm putting together a compilation of mp3s for a party that my buddies and I are playing at. It's unbelievably tedious, moving music from iTunes to folders and uploading to a website. I told my buddy, "Back in the old days, we'd drop the needle, hit Record on the tape deck and be done with it."

    As great as the internets is, you don't get the tactile, mind blowing experience when you discover something new. The weight of that paperback in your backpack or back pocket, the fumbling with the cassette to get the right side in the tape deck - hell, you don't really get the anticipation of 'the next time you read/listen/experience' that cool thing you've discovered.

    Oftentimes, I'll hear a song and my mind's ear still goes to the next song on a compilation tape, rather than the next song on a particular CD. When you make those tapes, the mixes and segues never leave you, I think because you put something of yourself into the 'piece'.

    Nice essay.

    By Anonymous Ripley, at 11:37 AM  

  • When I was in junior high school, I used to scour the used book and music stores on Telegraph in Berkeley. I was broke, and so a large part of this experience was finding the cheapest versions of the things I wanted, so that my scarce dollars could go farther. At Moe's books (which charges half the cover price for used paperbacks) this meant hunting for early editions, back when the cover price was $2. At the music stores, this meant buying the discounted beat up used tapes and LPs. I remember the distorted sound of Roger Water's voice on my first copy of Floyd's The Final Cut, deepened and slowed, because the tape could not turn freely.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:57 AM  

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