Saturday, 12 November 2011

Modern Classics

"Not for the first time I find myself thinking what a privilege it was to grow up in a house without books — or art. Those Penguin Modern Classics did not have the allure of drugs or under-age drinking; there was nothing illegal or subversive about them (except insofar as the constant infusion of knowledge steadily undermined parental authority), but consuming them was an expression of independence and discovery. Let’s put it as modestly as possible: acquiring and reading them provided an opportunity to accomplish what every adolescent craves — going somewhere and doing something without one’s parents."

Geoff Dyer, The Art of the Novel, NY Times, 3/11/2011

I have long been an admirer of Geoff Dyer, ever since picking up a copy of The Missing of the Somme in a Dublin bookshop. His acute but sporadic insights always dance around areas I find interesting -- we clearly have very similar enthusiasms -- and one of these days he's going to write something really good (miaow!). Actually, I think his collection of jazz stories, But Beautiful, is really good; his portrait of Thelonious Monk, in particular, is very moving.

But the quote above, from an online article I read recently, really set me thinking. The importance of Penguin Modern Classics in the formation of young minds in the 60s and 70s is beyond dispute; the attractions of under-age drinking and drug consumption are also clear (well, to a 17-year-old, anyway). But to put the two together -- to assert their equivalence -- in the context of growing up in a bookless, culture-free suburban home, really spoke to me.

It's hard to imagine being 17 again. Being 17 now is not the same as being 17 forty years ago; well, obviously, but easy to forget. My son's enthusiasm for Nintendo games like Pokemon, or my daughter's addiction to "must see" light-entertainment TV like Strictly, are a mystery to me; the way they use social media and smartphones to maintain 24/7 contact with their friends is a source of wonder. Penguin Modern Classics are still around, but I doubt many teenagers today are watching that row of uniform spines gradually accumulate on their bookshelf with any degree of fascination or satisfaction. They're just part of a much richer media mix.

But, actually, when I think back to that time, I think Geoff Dyer misses the point here. The real impact on bookish, counter-cultural teens of the 1970s was not made by Penguin Modern Classics, but by the brand new "trade paperback" sized imprints like Paladin, Picador and Abacus, with their elegant white spines and seriffed typefaces. When they first appeared in bookshops their taller size meant they were on a shelf apart from the regular paperbacks, literally and figuratively, and they immediately offered an alternative syllabus to that of those really rather staid and worthy Penguins.

The titles say it all: The Old Straight Track, The View Over Atlantis, Bomb Culture, Mythologies, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pricksongs and Descants, The Devil's Picturebook, The Sacred Mushroom and The Cross, Black Elk Speaks, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Trout Fishing in America, First Love Last Rites ... Remember those? I owned them all and more, and I expect you did, too. They spoke to a post-60s generation looking for something a little less ponderous than Camus, a little more trippy than Huxley, a lot more far out and revolutionary than D.H. Lawrence.

Yes, our parents may not have read T.S. Eliot or George Eliot, but our teachers had. They had gone to college during the 1950s and early 60s, worn those awful stripey college scarves, puffed on their pipes, and read Sartre and E.P. Thompson. They were the That Was The Week That Was generation -- so serious, so self-satisfied, so very responsible in their engagement. They did not read Richard Brautigan or Ian McEwan, or watch The Old Grey Whistle Test or Monty Python, and had no interest whatsoever in ley lines, shamanism, or magic mushrooms. We did.

In truth, many of us wanted to differ from our teachers more badly than we wanted to be different from our parents. We had stopped believing in their story and, as G.K. Chesterton said, the problem when people stop believing is not that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything, ley lines included. So I think there was a double move, a knight's move: a move in the direction of bookish culture that separated us from our parents, but also a sideways move in the direction of counter-culture that separated us from our teachers.

Not surprisingly, our generation was regarded by our earnest elders as a bit of a disappointment; a bunch of selfish hedonists and posturing ironists, straws in the wind, signs of a more fragmented, less community-minded consumerist society to come. They were partly right, of course, but as Geoff Dyer says, "In its provincial and limited way my formation by, faith in, and subsequent growing beyond Penguin Modern Classics reproduced the collapse of the grand narratives that is a staple part of Postmodernity 101."

In other words, in that mysterious way that 17-year-olds always are, we were already ahead of the curve, for good or ill. We knew we wanted something new, but were unable to say what it was -- in the Sex Pistols' witty inversion, "Don't know what I want, but I know how to get it..." Did we ever get it? I honestly couldn't say. Post-modernism, as a sort of academic Punk, seems in retrospect more like a terrible virus than a vital new force.

Ah, well, forty years have passed, and now I'm the parent. At least my children will never be able to complain of growing up in a house without books, though I realise growing up in a house where tripping over stacks of books or being brained by falling books is a daily hazard may not be ideal, either. But, hey, kids, we like it like this: if you want to live in a tidy, minimalist loft with a flat-screen home-cinema TV, you know what to do. It's your turn.


Dave Leeke said...

Great post, Mike. I quite like Geoff Dyer - I read an excellent book by him which I can't for the life of me remember the title of (and can't seem to find) about understanding photographs - you might know it, obviously. Also, I think he wrote a novel called "Geoff in Venice" which makes me smile when I think of it - maybe one day I'll read it.

Anyhow, I read many of the same books that you mention, being only a few years younger and from the same school. But I don't fully agree about wanting to be different to our teachers. Oh yes, definitely the bully boys, Hogg and co but I will always remember the kindness of Doug Ross, Alan Vincent and Fred Farrell. Doug realized I was a no-hoper academically at the time and certainly at a loss to understand Maths. Still am. But he recognised something and leant me "Gormenghast" which set me on the (rocky?) road to self-improvement and -learning.

I always preferred the Penguin Classics because they slipped into one's pocket which the larger ones didn't. This ensured that I always had something to read wherever I went - I guess it was an unplugged version of today's youth and their ubiquitous phones and iPods. They looked intellectual too. Nowadays it's usually a notebook I carry to amuse myself with.

Dave Leeke said...

I meant the Penguin Classics looked cool, not modern youths, of course!

Mike C. said...


You're probably thinking of "The Ongoing Moment" -- GD has a weakness for bad pun titles. Good book, though.

N.B. let me remind you that this is a "no names, no Stevenage, no packdrill" blog -- those guys are still out there somewhere! [someone needs to start a "Stevenage Refugees" blog, so people can get this stuff off their chest...]

As a pioneer of the army surplus "man bag", I have never felt the need to keep books in my pockets...


Martin said...

Good one, Mike. I must check out Geoff Dyer. I was a busy lad at 17, but I don't recall doing much reading. Been playing catch-up ever since.