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Several years ago I discovered the term and practice of psychogeography via a link at the Association of Autonomous Astronautsí website. In short, psychogeography is the study of how physical environments and settings directly effect the mood and behavior of individuals. Like most post-modern theories and Situationist-derived practices it was mildly interesting. Unfortunately, in most cases, psychogeography resembles the majority of modern cultural and literary theories. The persons discussing it are usually far more interested in proving their own cultural capital via an obtuse vocabulary and over-inflated sense of place, presence, ego, and impact. Basic truth is that if youíre not Umberto Eco youíll never be able to write like him. Or be as smart as him. So why try and pretend that you are? Thereís usually so much focus placed on neo-Marxist double-speak or anti-Capitalist interpretation that the work quickly bores. Still, it was an interesting idea. I toyed with it off and on for a couple weeks and that was it. Then, a few weeks ago, I began applying the basic practice of psychogeography to the local university library. It became a lot more fun and exciting and birthed psychobibliography.
Psychobibliography is psychogeography of a library and the materials contained therein. In other words, discovering where are you drawn, how certain books make you feel, and what new paths or intellectual tangents you explore because of whimsy.
Practicing psychobibliography is easy. All you need is some paper, a writing utensil, and a library. Personally I suggest university libraries as they normally have far more books on a variety of diverse subjects than most public libraries. Next, choose a starting point. It can be an author, publisher, topic, era, symbol, physical place, scientific practice--whatever tickles your fancy or interests you. Then hit the library catalog, search for said subject, and go find a book or books on the topic.
As you search out that text, walking through the stacks, riding the elevator, or seeking out relief in the restroom, pay rapt attention to your surroundings. If you spot a cool painting, go look at it. See a hot guy or gal you want to scope out more closely, walk towards them and start perusing the books nearby as if you are researching that topic. Who knows what you will discover. The most important thing is to follow your whim, your inspiration and interest at the moment it takes place. Equally important is noticing the key elements of what you see, how you feel, and where that inspires you to go next.
Psychobibliography is much like exploring on the internet via hypertext links. You never know where an unexpected turn will take you, what exciting ideas will be burned into your mind, or the interesting people and things you will see on the way. In terms of books, your exploring may well lead you back to those classic titles you know you should have read five or ten years ago, but never did, or into contemporary authors you once believed could only produce pulp for the toilet paper roll.
Once you feel bored, distracted, or uninterested quit. Donít push what should be natural. Go have a coffee, a smoke, and review your journey. Or hit the library again starting at a new place with a new author.
Many things draw my attention on library sojourns: titles, authorsí names, bindings, size of books, graphics, type face used, aged of the volume, etc. I never hesitate to pull books; I often pull four or five off the shelf at a time. Theyíre there to be used, read, handled. And I do just that. In one way or another they always effect me, whether it is with boredom from the title, an interesting cover design, or the name of the authorís literary agent listed at the front.
Unlike web-presented texts, I prefer the sensation of paper, the heft of a tome, the impact of type upon paper in older books. Theyíre beautiful. The nicer ones always have unique qualities that make them individuals--with a couple hundred, thousand, or ten thousand clones in libraries and bookshops around the globe. Itís anachronistic, sure, but I donít give a shit. I respond to the aesthetics of books, their physical nature, in a way that the same characters on a screen can never make me feel. Text files just donít work for me, friend.
Perhaps the best part of perusing texts randomly is what I find along the way. Whether itís a few coins on the carpet to fund my photocopying, seeing friends I havenít spoken to for weeks, or discovering an original lithograph in an older art book, they all have the same effect: cool! It feels good to find money, connect with friends, or spot original art. Makes my day, adds a glow of happiness, and keeps me going. Even when the only scores are old grocery receipts, photos of unknown friends left in a book in 1976, or offensive comments written in ink in the margins of a book, even these provide food for thought.
Equally interesting is noting how often a book is checked out. Was it last month and then twenty-five years ago? Who would check it out after that long? Why hasnít anyone bothered to check it out? Is the book too boring for use or are the students and faculty simply uninterested in the material? Sure, it seems mighty book-wormish to wonder about such things, but they fascinate me. Iím interested in the behavior and culture of books and how I respond to these texts. Forget the shopping malls and public landmarks, Iíd rather run the mouse maze of a library any day of the week.
Hit the library at HSU with the Old Man (my mentor & lover) at about noon. Stand around in the sun and strong breeze finishing up our smokes. Itís a gorgeous day, near the end of the term, and there are a few students around. Feel excited; libraries are always fun to visit.
Go to the third floor, we know thatís where all the literature and art books are kept. Old Man goes to look at art books, I hit the computers to search the catalog. Look for Stewart Home. No entries. Try one of his publishers, Serpentís Tail. Score! Over thirty texts. One deals with the ďblank generationĒ so I go to get it and discover what exactly the ďblank generationĒ is.
Book ainít so hot, though itís written pretty well. Only thing that catches my interest is Dennis Cooper. Heís mentioned a fair amount in there, I note, after ten minutes of scanning.
Go to the computers. Students writing formulae on plastic chalkboards with black markers--you know the type, wipe off easily with a towel or your hand but donít scrape or squeak like real chalk on slate. Mouse pad at the computer says that 55% of the students havenít smoked pot at all in the past 30 days. Wow! Given that this is Humboldt County, the other 45% must be puffing double time to make up for them.
Search Dennis Cooper. Find a book where heís interviewed. Wander the stacks searching for the right call numbers, note that books I looked at three days ago in the library are still on the same reshelving shelves I left them at. In Humboldt people are not in much of a hurry. Maybe thatís why today, two days before finalsí week, the library is nearly empty.
Spot the Old Man. Heís looking at books by Mark Twain, the Collected Works. He likes looking for bookplates; an admirer of lithographs and fine printing he is. I keep looking, find the book, and scan. Sit down to read. Start writing down names he drops for props, references: David Foster Wallace, Ivy Compton-Burnet, Celine, Bataille, Hanif Kureishi. In an interview he says he doesnít feel like heís part of the gay culture or something to that effect.
Tell me about it. Used to be that part of being gay meant being aware of our literary and cultural heroes. Now itís devolved to bass-thumping techno, snorting crystal, and bare-backing in bathrooms. Fuck that shit, give me Cocteau, Williams, Isherwood any day of the week.
Look up Celine, head to the French area. Always heard of Celine, never read it. I know, Iím an idiot. At least I know whoís missing on my reading list. Student typing on her laptop right near the French stacks. Must be a Mac, the keys are loud and the hard drive is loud when she saves her file. I dislike Macs. Her presence annoys me. Look for Celine, find Beckett. Collected short works. Pull it and three other titles of his. Find Celine, pull Journey and a couple other titles. Might as well look more, find Lautreamont. Maldoror! Finally, been looking for an English copy of that for years. Wasnít gonna pay to read what Current 93 and all those World Serpent bands have been moaning about for twenty years without first reading a bit for myself. And Bataille, might was well take a look.
Bataille. Tedious and boring. Only thing of interest beyond his melancholy self-absorption and tiresome, over-written texts is the blood. Thatís right, somebody cut themselves up and splattered blood on his text ďVisions of Excess.Ē Guess they found a lot more inspiration there than I did. Yawn.
Windows on this library are never washed. Spider webs several feet in diameter are up in the corners. Dirt stains are amazing. How can they get this dirty and do nothing about it. Oh yeah, this is HSU. Different priorities here.
Beckett. Clarity, present tense, active language. Environmental exactitude and surreal facets make him inspiring. Sometimes put me in awe. Great stuff.
Celine. My God, am I a loser or what for never having read Celine? As Homer Simpson would say, ďDOH!Ē Gotta get on this shit now! Journey to the End of the Night is addictive reading. Eats up thirty minutes without me noticing.
On to Maldoror. Interesting, colorful, but not what Iím into at the moment. Definitely footnote in my mind: come back and read!
Drop the books off on the reshelving shelf and go looking for David Foster Wallace. His title, Interviews with Hideous Men, clearly is a rip from Gurdjieffís Meetings with Remarkable Men. No dust jacket, start perusing. Brilliant stuff! Go find a desk, sit down, and read for an hour. Innovative approach, fascinating interviews, and theyíre fiction. This guy rocks. Need to find more of his stuff.
Need nicotine, go find the Old Man. After twenty or thirty aisles of searching find him looking at art books on Russians like Chagall.
End of my literary derive.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
The mysterious Mr. Greg lives and works in the equally mysterious Humboldt County