Jack Kerouac sat down and wrote The Subterraneans in three days, hopped up on coffee and Dexedrine, not stopping to lift his fingers off the typewriter, pounding the keys at sixty words a minute, and telling the world all about his crazy relationship with a black girl named Mardou Fox . . . and his friends Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady and omitting commas like crazy so that he could get the words down and not pause to create any typographical effects instead creating all the effects he needed with the words themselves and the way he had the people talking and interacting and living their lives. You know if you know anything about him that Kerouac created and lived in a world that was fresh and vibrant and in high definition like a sharp image that burns through time and comes down to us fresh and pristine and the beauty of it is that although his time has come and gone the way he lived is still available to us and can be recaptured and is being recaptured by a new group of young people in Greenwich Village even today . . . and for what it’s worth I’m going to give you some photos of them so that you can catch up on what’s happening and get inspired to maybe get behind the lens of a camera and create your own 1960s images in black and white, which is what Kerouac and friends did with their lives, creating an image of the Beat generation that has captivated the interest of people the world over.
Here for example is a photo of one of these young people who can be found in the Village at all hours of the day and night in coffeehouses and cafes and pizza places and open mic clubs like The Bitter End and Cafe Wha? and others in the West Village. This is Lewis Mason, an up-and-coming actor and singer/songwriter who is currently enrolled in the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City and who associates with the habitués of theaters and clubs, creating work on the run and honing his writing skills and reading books and poems and plays in a way that most of his generation do not do today. The unfortunate state of affairs in the year 2015 is that there has been such a sharp decline in the reading of literature. The NEA recently issued a dire report on the sad state of American reading, Reading at Risk (2004), which explains that not only is book reading on the decline but the drop in reading is accelerating.
Why get worked up over the decline in the reading of literature? Because if you’re a young person in America today they’re writing books about you (!) and speaking in unflattering terms about the dumbing down of the current crop of college and high school students, recent grads, working people, and almost everyone else. There’s a book that you have to read entitled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, and the reason the subtitle says “don’t trust anyone under thirty” is obviously because they don’t read and they don’t know the history of the culture they find themselves in, they have close to zero cultural literacy, and they lack a common understanding of their own culture. It’s a crying shame and it’s enough to make you want to tell your friends and family to click off the TV and the computer and the tablets and the cell phones and open a book, for heaven’s sake, read something and don’t just text your life away or fritter away your time with so-called social media, all of which, Bauerlein persuasively argues, is sapping the culture out of you like a vampire draining a corpse. E.D. Hirsch had a similar criticism of the vacuity of his students and actually wrote a book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1988) listing, like a dictionary, all the things they did not know.
Anyway, the key point is that if you want to preserve your intelligence and integrity as a member of contemporary culture—with a link to it’s deep core and roots—then you owe it to yourself to develop an understanding of that culture’s literature, specifically, novels, poems and plays, and start reading books. People who do that, according the the NEA study, are also more likely to attend arts events, go to the theater, visit museums, and become engaged with their community on a political level. Good photography is another way for you to participate. You could take photos or have them taken of you. Whichever you do, you’re likely to experience a boost in your self-image and become part of the artistic culture that is flourishing again in the Village. I encourage you to let people photograph you and to contact a professional photographer to help get your image on the move again. While you’re at it, stop in at a few of the bookstores in the Village. Lewis Mason even works at one, called bookbook, on Bleecker Street. Go in and buy a book and support the few bookstores that are left in this city.
By the way, The Subterraneans is a superlative novel, short and full of interesting observations, despite how fast it was written. Yes, Truman Capote famously said of Kerouac’s method of not editing his first drafts, “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” but the book still comes close to D.H. Lawrence in my opinion. And another thing, you might as well know it, John Giorno is still working and writing great poems in the Village. He was an associate of the Beats and was one of them, and has the most amazing delivery of poetry. I love his poem “Just Say No to Family Values.” You can catch him sometimes at the Bowery Poetry Club, which has devolved into a burlesque joint but which apparently metamorphoses into the old poetry club two nights a week.
Here is a list of books that, in my opinion, you should be reading:
- Dynamic Speed Reading a nonfiction work by Norman C. Maberly (1966). You can get this book used for one cent on Amazon (plus $3.99 shipping), so you really have no excuse not to read it. It will enable you to absorb useful information like a sponge and you’ll be able to read very fast when you want to. If you’re already read this book, I suggest you reread it. It is one of the most important books you will ever read precisely because it will make you less afraid of reading.
- The Subterraneans a novel by Jack Kerouac. Written in 1958, it is more modern than your iPhone and very short. Why not read it! Then you can boast to your friends that you’ve read Kerouac. The book dips into the love lives of Kerouac (called Leo Percepied in the novel), Allen Ginsberg (called Adam Moorad in the novel), William S. Burroughs (Frank Carmody in the novel), and more.
- The Birthday Party, a play by Harold Pinter. The link is to the BBC production, starring the playwright, Harold Pinter. You’re lucky because today many great plays can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, including this one.
- A Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess (1962). The novel uses a lot of Russian words and is about a violent boy who loves Beethoven.
- Any book by Wilhelm Reich. Not to have read this man is to miss a liberating intellectual and emotional experience.
- Any book by Friedrich Nietzsche. The writing is breathtaking, the ideas as well. You might start with Ecce Homo, his hilariously funny autobiography, which contains chapters entitled, “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Write Such Excellent Books,” and the like. The link is to the book online. Even if you don’t want to read it, why not at least click on the link and look at his writing style. This man, who has a reputation as one of the greatest philosophers of all time, is not difficult to read. On the contrary, he writes more clearly and with more excitement line by line than anything being published today.
- The Armies of the Night a nonfiction novel by Norman Mailer (1968). A beautiful account of his antiwar efforts, the first part of the book is the best.
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) by Hunter S. Thompson, which is a comic novel about a journalist who covers a police narcotics convention while high on every imaginable drug. This is an example of gonzo journalism, in which the author stretches the truth for comic effect.
There are more books that I’ll add to the list at a later time, but this is a good start.
(Photos by William Cane)