OM431 - Penguin Classics

This week, Ken and John talk about:

Reading classic literature (OM431)

There is the old canon, the mid canon and the new canon of literature. Reading across all three of them didn't feel virtuous to John because to him that was just what constituted an education. He didn’t read books that weren’t at least in one of those three, the modernist one being one that felt the freshest and the raddest.

So many fun books made it into the canon, like everything by Vonnegut is just fun and John would call it canon. He was not a Philip Roth reader, it was too saucy for him, but he read all the hipster stuff of the 1950s and 1960s like Tropic of Capricorn (by Henry Miller) or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (by Tom Wolfe). John would call that stuff modern and it is something different than best seller. It is literary fiction and it qualifies as pushing the boundaries of writing, but also fun to consume.

When Ken was reading that stuff he had always seen Siskel & Ebert give it two thumbs up already and he knew going in that it wasn’t going to suck and even if he wouldn’t like it, he still would stroke his chin and have a take on it because you have to have a take on Jane Austen or John Updike.

John was a Western Civ and has read some (Nathaniel) Hawthorne, some (Edgar Allan) Poe, and some (Thomas) Hardy. He has read Mary Wollstonecraft and (William) Faulkner. It was getting assigned to him through friends giving him books, but he was actually curious. You read (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich) Hegel and you don’t really love it, but you love being able to talk about it.

Ken has a hard time with that stuff, but when it comes to fiction it is very easy not only having a good time, but also fulfilling the self-flagellating protestant work ethic part of himself that makes him think that even when he is watching a film or reading a book he should be doing some work on himself.

Ken only read The Red and the Black by Stendhal, he read Rebours (by Joris-Karl Huysmans) and The Russians (by Hedrick Smith)? You get to write about it and discuss it, even if the book itself is not as interesting. Billy Budd (by Herman Melville) is not super-fun, but there is some level of tourism to it. The closest Ken is ever going to come understanding 19th century Russia is reading 800 pages of (Fyodor) Dostoevsky, and understanding it you feel like you can talk about a lot more things.

Books that feel like work and that you best read in a book club

As John mentioned 30 times on this show he has read Moby Dick since last year, which was hard and he couldn’t have done it without a book group, but the process of doing it and talking about it felt like college and it felt like fun. It is like climbing Everest: You need a group of people setting up a basecamp for you and for carrying the heavier stuff.

You can’t just parachute in and you need a diverse enough group reading it along with you where this person knows something about this aspect and that person knows something about that aspect because you will get so much more! John alone couldn’t get every biblical and every Shakespeare reference.

These books do feel like work! The Sound and the Fury (by William Faulkner) or even the Iliad (by Homer) just fall into some boys on adventure, even the books that seemed like adventure-y page-turners at the time like Robinson Crusoe (by Daniel Defoe). Centuries have past and style is different and now it takes concentrated effort to turn those words into a narrative in your head!

They have talked about Gravity’s Rainbow (by Thomas Pynchon) before and Ken has since finished it and his eyes have moved over every word in this book and he is counting that. At one point John marked 4 different bookmarks in that book because he was reading it at 4 different locations, he would read up to a certain point and would have to go back and start reading again and then read a little further and go back, it was so hard!

The copy Ken has read was from the undergraduate library of the University of Washington and he could probably re-check-out the one that he unhappily slogged through. Ken has not read Ulysses (by James Joyce) nor Infinite Jest (by David Foster Wallace). He loves big books and he cannot lie, but those seemed like self-conscious efforts to write the big book.

Not knowing all the references anymore

Ken knows his Shakespeare and his Bible a lot better than John and those are two of the places where you can find allusions to stories in those books, and they often go by John and he feels the ghost of a biblical allusion or the ghost of Shakespeare’s sister, but he doesn’t know Henry IV well enough to get the reference. It feels like reading it is incomplete because he is skipping like a fool through them.

Ken says that is what CliffsNotes are for! They will tell you the 4 things about The Merry Wives of Windsor (by Shakespeare) or The Book of Micah (from the Bible) that are actually relevant to modern life. With Wikipedia it is a lot easier, but 25 years ago he could only say: ”I guess that was a reference! LOL!"

John has the same problem with people referencing movies and TV shows now: He will get every single reference to any sitcom before 1982, but after that he is in the dark, and there are so many middle-aged people now who want to make references to Alf or all those shows with a guy with a mullet and a bunch of precocious kids like Full House. John has never seen an episode of Full House and people reference it all the time.

The explosion of content makes Ken a little nostalgic for a time when you could buy a line of Harvard Classics as hardcovers that would then sit on your shelf and that was pretty much the sum of all cultural literacy, all 35 of the white men you needed to know from Hesiod to Hegel. John wonders if people still read Siddhartha (by Hermann Hesse) or if the canon has evolved.

The canon evolves and stuff drops out

Where is the line where stuff just drops out? Ken thinks that Jeopardy! knows because they see when they keep asking about a work or a person and it starts to go dead and then they know that they can’t do (Anthony) Trollope anymore either. The canon is being guarded by people every night on syndicated TV.

People still read Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) and Slaughterhouse-Five (by Kurt Vonnegut), but do they read Blink-182 (Rock band, not a book)? John has read pretty deeply into Blink-182, but he doesn’t get those references either because he wasn’t a Skate Punk in the early 1990s! There are plenty of young men’s novels of that period like Billy Budd (by Herman Melville): Everybody read it in 1986, but does anybody read it now?

The idea of Classics as modern things that sit on your shelf, books as a fabric of middle class life, as decor, as things you pack for travel, as the basis of social interaction, book clubs with your friends, all this stuff is pretty much a 20th century invention.

In the 19th century everybody read (Ralph Waldo) Emerson and (Walt) Whitman, but those were best sellers back then and it is like everybody now reading Da Vinci Code (by Dan Brown) or The Last of the Mohicans (by James Fenimore Cooper). Leaves of Grass (by Walt Whitman) was the equivalent of that except Da Vinci Code didn’t get Bill Clinton laid.

John getting asked by a girl at a party to recite some poetry (OM431)

One time in 1987 a beautiful girl came up to John at some rowdy party where he was standing against the wall and said: ”I bet you know poetry!” Will you just recite me some poetry? This was the greatest come-on he had ever been on the receiving end of, but his mind just went blank and eventually he read the Epigraph Poem of The Great Gatsby (by F. Scott Fitzgerald):

”Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her”, a little Leaves of Grass (by Walt Whitman), A Poem Lovely as a Tree (called Trees by Joyce Kilmer), and Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood (called The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost), just the dumbest stuff! Those were poems you read in Senior year of High School and he should have gone deeper into Leaves of Grass, but he couldn’t and also he didn’t know how to do it ironically enough and she waltzed off, looking for another hippie!

It was too wide a field and John would have needed some constraints. All the men of his mom’s generation knew at least a Sonet. She had boyfriend who knew every Sonet and could do them all, it was for wooing, it was like Boris Johnson doing his Ancient Greek thing that he does on talk shows, which is fun and attractive, but then you realize that it is just a get-laid strategy except now you are trying to get laid by the whole country.

John on tour in Exeter (OM431)

One time on a spring day John was on tour in Exeter in the UK and he went into a book shop and asked for The Flashman Papers and the person behind the counter was scandalized because they were so trashy. Being on tour was the one time when John read just garbage books because he was trying to read them in a moving car.

Media to consume on a trip (OM431)

When Ken is on a trip he needs something that is going to propel him through it, he can’t read something good for him on a plane because he will just keep looking out the window or at his phone, or he will watch The Fast and the Furious with the sound down that the person next to him has on their seat back. John has watched so many movies without the sound because he can’t stop looking at somebody else’s movie. He highly recommends Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (by Tony Sanchez).

Fonts and typefaces (OM431)

John’s daughter is exploring fonts on Google Fonts and her favorite was some cursive font, but John explained that there is a reason why we standardize type faces so that it is easy to read, and she knew about Sans Serif.

Ken was the editor of his High School yearbook and they didn’t have Desktop Publishing software, but Ken had some at home on his Atari ST and he ended up printing most of it at home where he fell for his favorite fonts. He still likes Garamond today even though it is a little eccentric.

He not only got into broken typefaces that were intentionally so artistic that it was unreadable, but as a subject heading font for the Seniors section of the High School yearbook he used the font Revue, which today is referred to as The Room Font because it is used in the famously bad movie The Room and that is kind of hated today, but in the 1990s they have never had access to this stuff and they were like kids in a toy store.

Used book stores (OM431)

There is the used book store in Seattle called Twice Sold Tales and Ken loved it because of the cats. John spent days in there! Then there is Magus Books that is still hanging on and that Ken used when he was on the UW. There were a bunch of used book stores on 4th Downtown that are no longer there. There was the architecture book stores and the weird book stores that also sold Jazz sides, there were a lot of those in Pioneer Square when real estate was cheap. Ken loves the smell of used book stores.

People arranging their library by color (OM431)

It is a home decorating fad to arrange your books by color. A couple weeks ago Ken was at a Hanukah party that had a color-designed library. John was at a friends’ house where they ushered him into a library that he knew because he had stayed with them many times and this was a library that he had perused, and they had arranged the whole thing by color and John was scandalized.

How are you supposed to find anything? John is very particular about how he arranges his books. Ken’s Dewey Decimal impulse wants him to hate all about it, but it does look kind of great. The latest thing John saw was where someone had arranged their books spine in and you just see the pages, but that is just saying: ”I am never going to read any of these!” or it is total Russian Roulette.

John getting free books from his friends (OM431)

John had a friend whose mother was a college professor in modern literature and she would send reading lists to her son who would forward them to John and he would also often give him the books after he was done with them. John didn’t have any money, but he had 3-4 different pipelines of books and after people would have read something he would get it. His reading syllabus had filtered through a couple of different people, but they were varied enough that he had a pretty thick regular torrent of books. By the time Atonement (by Ian McEwan) came out, the 1990s hipster books, John had fallen slightly off.

For a while John was lucky enough to have a friend who worked at an early online book seller, it was not Amazon, and they had review copies of trade paper backs and every two weeks they would bring John a box of these books that were all bound in the same ochre color cardboard and they were all about the War of 1812 and similar. John loved these books because they were so beautiful together on a shelf!

Library of America book series (OM431)

Ken is really into Library of America and bought quite a few of their books, and he hates that they are not that pretty, but the books themselves are great, the paper is good, but still thin and light, so they are good for travel, and you can have one book with the complete work of Shirley Jackson or Carson McCullers.

Those books have a red/white/blue stripe because it is the Library of America and it was designed in some Franklin Mint part of the 1970s. John first couldn’t tell if they were corny or not until he picked them up and opened them, and then he realized that they are really nice. Maybe Ken should take the jackets off, but he has a problem with that, too!

Morrissey’s memoirs (OM431)

In 2013 Penguin released the autobiography of the beloved singer Morrissey who is unobjectionable in every way and you can’t say a bad thing about him at all. John did not read it, although he read a lot of Rock memoirs on tour. Ken read it and it is everything you would think it to be: Insufferable, narcissistic, but also beautiful and it is unreadable with massive bricks of text and 6-page single sentences and it is poetic in a way. He insisted that it would come out as part of Penguin’s classics line. The picture on the cover looks like he is receiving fellatio, even though he is famously a virgin.

John trying to improve his guitar playing during the pandemic (OM431)

During COVID John was planning on learning the guitar way better, although he plays the guitar now better than any time in his life, including the times when he played it for 4 hours a day every day. He was so sick of his guitar playing because he was so boring and was playing the same dumb stuff for 15 years. Then he played the guitar really hard and he got better. He had all these reasons why he couldn’t do this or that, he couldn’t practice his scales, he could never learn how to do things because he was a post-Grunge era artist and they weren’t supposed to know how to do things.


Ken never read the Harvard Classics because the only place he has ever seen them is in every used book store ever and in John’s house, which is very much the same aesthetics. John really worked at them, but you hit some real dry patches.

Ken just read the 33⅓ books (33 1/3) and he just got to the Andrew WK one and he was wondering if that was the one that derails the whole endeavor.

Somebody published on the Futurelings Facebook page a list of substrings in literary works that are palindromes. There is a 13-letter palindrome hidden in the King James Bible: ”There was…no man even amon…g them”. Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince has a 13-letter palindrome in the words ”o…utside be distu…rbed” There is a 15-letter one in Great Expectations (by Charles Dickens): ”Tha…t I saw one now as it”, they are all unintentional found art.

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