(I should really stop taking all my communications by memo.)
But Ulin’s argument turns out to be much subtler than its banner. It’s something more interesting, in fact, than an argument. He’s got three threads going. The first began as an L.A. Times article about the increasing difficulty of concentrating on long-form text for those inclined to get hooked on tweets, Google Alerts, Huffington Post dispatches, etc. Laboring under the crusty belief that I am what I read, I’ve practiced just enough strategic abstinence — posting to Twitter but never “checking” it, harshly regulate my inbox-peering, going on Facebook only under certain phases of the moon — not to worry much about this.
The second thread discusses the dynamic between Ulin and his non-reading son when the son is assigned The Great Gatsby and sent, I suspect, on one those pointless high school English symbolism hunts. Ulin comes off as more agnostic about this, but I wild-eyedly cultivate a number of theories about how, for every kid high school English shoots up with Dead Poets Society, it turns a thousand others away from reading forever. I don’t blame anybody for this; it strikes me as systemic a problem as they come. If you try to make the pleasures of literature teachable by mandatory public education’s definition of “teachable,” it’s easiest to part them out in this plodding, alienating way, the terrible scope of which only becomes clear when you step back.
In third thread — my favorite — Ulin writes a short biography of his reading life. Boldly, he devotes a not insubstantial chunk of this small book to describing his abiding love of the work of the Scottish barge driver/heroin addict/novelist Alexander Trocchi, his favorite in a constellation of writers who both lived vigorously and, to some extent, wasted their skill. I never latched on to the Jack Kerouacs or Ayn Rands of the world, the unconventional novelists of extreme views you’re supposed to get into in adolescence, but now that I read up on Trocchi, I wonder if I haven’t found a potential equivalent for my mid-twenties. I wonder if I haven’t found a candidate for a future Millions contemporary novelist primer.
Ulin highlights the moment in his reading life when, in his late twenties, he geared up to move from New York to Los Angeles. We talked about this a bit in our 2007 conversation, where he mentioned making use of the most time-honored New Yorker’s adaptation strategy: hating Los Angeles. The Lost Art of Reading has details his other, to my mind much more useful technique: placing himself in Los Angeles through literature.
Madelaine and I recently showed the visiting Chris/cobalt999 around Los Angeles. Despite his confirmed Man of the World status, he’d never actually spent much time in L.A., so we seized the opportunity to take him through the geography and/or psychogeography of “our” version of the city. This meant Amoeba Music. This meant LACMA. This meant Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles. This meant Koreatown. This meant following John Rabe’s suggestion to “get high on L.A.” by taking a position above the city — Griffith Observatory, in this case —and looking around us. (This would have meant Tokyo 7-7, had it not been for history’s greatest tragedy.) Chris being Chris, it also meant a lot of staring at Los Angeles in Google Earth. We’re talking about a guy who’s been to Africa once yet knows the name and location of each and every one of its countries.
I enjoy maps as much as the next guy — okay, substantially, geekily more than the next guy — but Ulin’s literary self-placement also strikes me as necessary. Since I myself am preparing to move to L.A. at the end of the year — albeit only from Santa Barbara — I need all the self-placement I can get. Me being me, I’ve accomplished some of this with the cinema of L.A., of which there is helluva, and, via Podthoughts with the radio and podcasts of L.A. But I think I could do with much more literature. Ulin’s own two anthologies, Writing Los Angeles and Another City, have proven invaluable. The literary journal Slake, which I actually learned about through John Rabe’s show Off-Ramp when I wrote it up in Podthoughts, will come in handy indeed should it continue to publish issues. Certainly it’s about damn time I caught up on Raymond Chandler. Still, as someone with aspirations of getting a handle on Los Angeles and, even more impudently, aspirations of carving out a place in the city’s book culture, let’s just say I could use some more suggestions.