When I first met my wife I made a joke as she was looking at my bookcase, which was, in those days, just two very big stacks of books that went from the floor of our Brooklyn apartment (we met as room-mates) to about waist height. I said, "I haven't read half of those," tee hee, "I just keep them there for looks." Turns out that she believed me for about a year, thinking that this big new love of hers was a literary poseur, just acquiring books so that they might look good.
I used to know a guy growing up named Conor. He did the same thing with albums. He had a whole floor-to-ceiling bookcase full of CDs. I remember I was looking through them and pulled out "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis. I asked him how it was, as I was 17, 18 at the time, and he said "I don't know, I haven't listened to so many of those." Conor was kind of a jerk. He was the kind of guy that took Fight Club and Joy Division way too seriously. In one of our last conversations he had a whole monologue about how Hitler was "kind of cool." This was said not with bravado but more in the style of Ray Romano trying to sell you on his home cooking. He was in many retrospects a proto alt-right dude some 15 years before it was in the news. Maybe he's changed now — we all do — but for all intents and purposes he's framed in that moment, at least in my own mind, forevermore. I took Fight Club really seriously as well. After seeing it, I dismantled my bed and slept on one of my parents' old couches. It wasn't very comfortable, and it smelled. I think the entire experience of sleeping on the couch lasted about four months, until I got a girlfriend who found the idea of a bedless bedroom terribly gauche.
Movies in 1999 were excellent. I went to see Being John Malkovich and Fight Club and American Beauty (hey, sue me!) and American Psycho in the space of about eight weeks. I wasn't in the right place for punk rock but I was definitely in the right place for — depending on how you read it — the beginning of the 'collector' / Google Image way of thought (see below) — or, the golden sunset of the pre-9/11 pre-endless-war monoculture.
(HONK hi there quick tangent: by 'Google Image' way of thought I mean that you can borrow a whole (gulp) aesthetic (kill me) by simply Googling it rather than doing any boots-on-the-ground homework. This is both a blessing and a curse. Consider the now ubiquitous Thrasher t-shirt popularized first by skaters in the mid 90s and then again by rappers Google Imaging pictures of skaters from the mid 90s, and now worn by every 4th person in a mall. On one hand, Thrasher Magazine has a second life. On the other, now it's sort of a Playboy bunny logo... just a logo. Anyway. Let's pull back onto the thought freeway.)
It was around this time that I began reading a lot of Glenn O'Brien. I really wanted to be Glenn O'Brien. He was The Style Guy for GQ, but his columns about socks or pant leg width or reader's questions about wearing cowboy hats in the boardroom (for example) often turned into valuable life advice. It was the first time that I can remember thinking not only "hey, this guy sounds like me" but "this guy has read all the books and seen all the movies and isn't being condescending about it." He's one of the few writers I've ever read who uses their intelligence like a weapon without ever firing a shot. JK Rowling would be another one of those writers, someone that wasn't lording their presence over you with big words and big ideas. Glenn (and JK, in her fiction, which is a bit of a different arena) was the polar opposite of many of the writers I read today: someone that didn't make it all about themselves, used "you" moreoften than "I", talked to you instead of through you. In short, he/they are good writers to emulate.
Glenn used to work for Andy Warhol, who tapped Glenn to be the first editor of Interview Magazine. He went on to work for High Times, becoming the first ever Editor-at-Large, coining the phrase because he was so rarely in the to the point where when people called for him the office got used to saying he was "at large." He started TV Party, a very punk rock DIY cable access show, in the very late 70s and early 80s and was the first to have Basquiat and Klaus Nomi on TV. I could run you through his whole bio — he's also the guy that wrote the 'just be' Calvin Klein commercials — in fact, he readily used to admit that while his downtown editorial cool-factor payed the scene cred, it was his uptown copywriting that really paid the bills.
A year or two before he died he put out a book called The Cool School, a compedium of essays about what 'cool' is, first-hand essays from non-writers like Mezz Mezzrow (one of the first marijuana dealers in Harlem amongst the jazz musicians, back in the 20s), comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, all the way through to artists like Brion Gysin. It's a great book.
There's a big difference but a small line between being a smart-ass and being wise. Being wise, you bridge gaps. Being a smart-ass, you cause the gaps. Every time I'm lost, I jump into a Glenn O'Brien book. He didn't see high-brow or low-brow, just "brow." It's the same reason, in a roundabout way, why I love Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure on an equal level with George Orwell. Good is good. It's learning how to procure that message that matters.
Why bring all this up?
If you take Fight Club way too seriously you run the danger of demolishing your bed or becoming a Nazi. If you're wise about it, you take the message from it and apply it, rather than waving it around like a weapon. Books, and art in any form, really, can be intensely powerful things. Have you ever actually read The Bible? That shit reads like 50 Shades of Yahweh if you read it cold, full of mixed metaphors and messages, but if you take the central premises of "believe in something bigger than yourself" (RE: Old Testament) and "hey, maybe don't be a dick" (RE: New Testament) then you're golden, amigo. Now look at the many, many, many, many, many wars started over this book. Methinks they needed some more of Moses's burning bush to take the edge off that mis-reading.
There's some study out there that says that having more books than you can read is good for you. I kinda disagree. It might look fantastic, but there's no reason to pour things into your head without context in the hopes that it'll make you smarter. If all you do is consume, you'll end up queasy and obese, and that goes for your brain as well as your stomach. Surrounding yourself with the right books, movies, art, maybe even going as far as to broaden your horizons by going out of your comfort zone, maybe
Collecting for a collection's sake isn't good for you, or anyone. You don't become "cool" through osmosis. You get it by showing up and tinkering away at it like you're making a watch or unearthing a dinosaur skeleton: the past is shockingly fragile and we have to do our best to preserve it, be it in the right context (i.e. Freddy Got Fingered is a great movie IN THE CONTEXT OF grossout surrealist comedies) or the right arena (i.e. Mötley Crüe are an incredible band WITHIN THE ARENA of the Sunset Strip in the mid-to-late 80s). As to which: is it mandatory to have Freddy Got Fingered: Collector's Editon, on your shelf at home, prominently displayed? Fuck no. And is it proper to own every Mötley Crüe album? No. And I know a lot of guys — and it is mostly guys — who subscribe to that logic, that just because it's on some list, that just because it holds some cache, that it thereby has to be owned. And when you "own" something you apply your own thinking to it, about why it is important. It doesn't allow flexibility.
There's a whole other tangent here I want to make about Marvel movies. All those Marvel characters were created by a few guys in rickety offices in New York from the 1930s to the 1960s. They were created not to be collected but to be read, to be enjoyed, to learn lessons from, and then to move on from. But life being what it is — we're still stuck, emotionally, as a country, in 2003 — people don't want to move on. We want these same stories told over, and over, and over again. So it's fitting that the culture is stuck in the Google Image phase: just collecting.
Anyway. Gotta run. Haircut time.