Saturday, January 28, 2012

Let Them Eat Glass!

Laurie and I were recently lunching at the home of friends new enough to our lives to have been the occasion of our first visit to said home.  On those occasions, I am to bookshelves as a moth to a flame, and the first hour or so of my visit to someone's home for the first time is usually consumed with talking about the books that they own.

On this occasion, one of their shelves contained a book that changed the course of my life when I was a young shaver and Laurie called on me to relate the story.  The book was the autobiography of the comedic actor Harpo Marx, titled Harpo Speaks.  I think I was around 10 or 11 at the time and my father and I were at a video store (which was a sort of store in which one could rent videotapes of films for a fee.)  I don't know what I was intending on renting, but I'm sure it was some abysmal piece of childish tripe that my father was less than enthusiastic about having to be in the same house in which it was playing.  Thinking quickly, he brought me an alternative suggestion, one that I'd never heard of.  He brought me a copy of Duck Soup, which was one of the Marx Brothers' earlier films.  This was my first encounter with the Marx Brothers and I decided to give it a try.

I loved it.  My obsession with the Marx Brothers was the sort of obsession that only a 'tween is capable of maintaining, although the obsession quickly transferred as you shall see anon.

I remember going to Rizzoli's bookstore in South Coast Plaza and finding a copy of Harpo Marx's autobiography very soon after seeing the movie.  I bought the book and read it with great gusto.  I still have that copy and it is now in tatters from the number of times I read it.  My obsession transferred from the Marx Brothers to an unusual place for the obsession of a Junior Higher: Alexander Woollcott.

Alexander Woollcott was a theater critic, wit, literary personality, and social commentator in the first half of the previous century.  He held literary court at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, surrounding himself with a laundry list of luminaries of his day, including a close friendship with Harpo Marx.  I began collecting the books of Alexander Woollcott in junior high.  I still a have whole shelf devoted to him.  Several of them are signed.  Along with his more abundantly printed works, I have a rare copy of his ill-fated play which he co-wrote with George S. Kaufman called The Dark Tower, a collection of his reportage from the first World War for Stars and Stripes, and several other rarities which I must check my pride in not listing here at great length.  I have now been a collector of Woollcottalia twice as long as I was ever not one.
Woollcott was, as I mentioned, among other things, passionately interested in literature and the theater.  Those passions transferred to me.  I began to branch out and read George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham (I remember taking The Moon and Sixpence with me to a Quaker junior high camp), Dorothy Parker, and so forth, which then lead to Faulkner and Hemingway and Whitman and Poe and Twain and many many others.  I remark on this because, before I saw Duck Soup, I was not a child particularly inclined towards reading and certainly not towards reading anything serious.  A slapstick comedy from the 1930s set me on the course towards intellectualism.  Laurie asked me, earlier today when we were discussing this, what I think I would have become has it not been for that chance encounter with that film.  I answered that I probably would have been your run of the mill Comic-Con geek, playing RPGs, waiting outside a movie theater at midnight to see the latest costumed hero movie, and posting .gifs from The Big Bang Theory on my Tumblr as the closest thing I get to a creative act.

I have a more complex set of reactions to my entrance into love for compositional music, specifically contemporary experimental music.  Back in Orange County, I used to listen to KUSC, the world-class local classical music station, and specifically loved The Record Shelf which was hosted by Jim Svejda.  Listening to that show was like taking a free classical music appreciation course.  I remember Mr. Svejda, at one point, expressing his disdain for what was a ponderous, extraordinarily difficult opera about Albert Einstein on a beach.  Like so much of life, the object forbidden to me by an authority took on a special place of interest and, at the end of my teens, I became a fan of the music of Philip Glass.

I do still admire Woollcott a great deal and I still think he was wonderful (evident, no doubt, in my verbosity and circumlocution.)  As someone known in the circles in which I travel as a "book person," I am sometimes asked about, say, the Harry Potter books.  For the record, how I feel about them is that there is a whole upcoming generation who may very well have been hooked into being life-long readers from the series, far more than anything that happened to the generation that I grew up in.  This is an excellent and hopeful development.  Do I think they're great?  Not particularly.  But, I feel that people who engage with the world around them, who interact with different ideas and viewpoints, who value knowledge and art, really do make the world a better place.  I feel the world would be a better place if such values spread like wildfire, not if they are kept in a secret chamber where the people who hold the esoteric knowledge can feel smart and superior to the common rabble.  I feel that people can aspire towards higher concepts like beauty, truth, virtue, and peace; the reflection of the divine within the limited scope of our existence.  I will even go so far as to say things like that at the risk of sounding snotty and judgmental in the suggestion that there are "baser" things.

But there are.  There are low and base entertainments; there is art that reflects the highest aspirations of humankind; and there is a vast grey area of places in-between.  And we all have a lifetime in which to interact with them, communicate with them, and come to our own conclusion.  Possibly even make some of our own.  Like what you like and interact with what hooks you. 

Every time I mention Philip Glass, someone makes a denigrating joke or remark, and I'm not here to shame anyone for doing so.  I get it.  Saying Philip Glass is your favorite composer is like saying Danny Elfman is your favorite composer.  However, I would like to offer my own point of view.  If I had a young and promising relative of about 13 or 14, I would not buy them something by Arnold Schoenberg.  I would buy them Glass' Solo Piano or Hydrogen Jukebox or possibly Satyagraha.  There is nothing wrong with liking the things that you like, being where you are, and seeking to better yourself where you are.  Sure, at some point you will probably move from living on milk to meat, but there are also grapes and yogurt and rye bread and horehound candies and olives and any number of other means of sustenance, which science has known for well over a year that a healthy diet is one of variety.

Or, perhaps a more apt metaphor, the lamppost directly inside the wardrobe to Narnia is a fantastic object.  The magic draws Lucy in and is the catalyst for a great deal of adventure.  Of course, the Pevensies don't spend the rest of their lives camped out next to the lamppost.  They have a whole world to explore!  But is the lamppost any less magical than reaching Cair Paravel?  Is it any less a part of Narnia?  Do we imagine the full grown Pevensies mocking the time when they were so entranced by the lamppost, unaware of the wonders to follow?

It is my belief that there are far too many obstacles in our culture to seeking to better one's self, be they economic, peer pressure, levels of difficulty, fear of scorn.  If I can be so crassly Wagnerian, it is not the job of the Guardians of Splendor to bar the gates to keep out the riff-raff.  Our brave new world does a fine enough job of that on its own.  Rather it is ours to beat the drum as loudly as we possibly can and hope open the gates as wide as they can go.


  1. Had the pleasure of being present at a performance of P. Glass's 'Satyagraha' at the Coliseum, London a few years ago now. The best of American culture.

  2. Wish you could take your niece, Lily, under your wing and mentor her. She is so in need of encouragement to learn to read. She hates it but when she was here I think she just needs a lot of patient training and lot of encouragement and finding what she is interested in.