An editor’s reblog: “When Reading Meant Everything”

The following was originally published on editor Foster Dickson’s website in August 2019.


All of the books pictured here came into my life between ages 14 to 20, during the years 1989 through 1994, while I was in high school or the first two years of college, and each of them changed my life in its own way. It was a bleak time for me; my parents got divorced, my older brother got married and moved out, and my father remarried quickly, all in 1990, and once high school was done in ’92, our inability to afford much in the way of college meant that I would continue to live at home and attend a local school while working full-time. I was tethered to a life I didn’t want to lead in a place I didn’t want to be, and books (and music and movies, too) were my gateway to something greater than what I saw around me.

Though, as a young kid, I was something like the bullied Bastian in The Neverending Story who escaped from the world through books, what I have found in books and magazines (and music and movies) since then is expansion. By high school, I was no longer reading to get away from the world— I was reading to know it better, to see and to know more of it, to glimpse ways of life I hadn’t imagined, even when I couldn’t physically leave where I was.

Beyond the fantasy works of JRR Tolkien, Ursula K LeGuin, and Madeleine L’Engle that I enjoyed when I was young, the first book that truly changed my life was Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a work I never would have chosen for myself but which was assigned by Mrs. Brock in ninth-grade English. In this mid-century French novel, a man named Meursault’s passive refusal to participate in aspects of life that he doesn’t care about causes him to be taken for a sociopath when he stabs and kills a man in an altercation that results from a misunderstanding. At fourteen, what I saw in Meursault was not a heartless murderer who deserved the death penalty, but a man who was utterly exasperated with having a life he didn’t want being crammed down his throat.

That same year, I borrowed another book that I had seen on a friend’s shelf, knowing nothing more about it than its intriguing title: Beyond Good and Evil. This work of philosophy by 19th-century German existentialist Friedrich Nietszche, was wayover my head, though I did manage to finish it, urged forward by having people constantly say that I had no business reading such things. They had thrown down the gauntlet, issued a challenge, and I wouldn’t be bested. I’ll admit freely that I only understood parts of what I read, but for me, it was like Rocky’s goal in the first movie: I wanted go the distance. I knew I couldn’t beat Beyond Good and Evil, but I also wouldn’t be able to hold my head up in the neighborhood if I got knocked out by it. Some teenagers wanted a high ACT score or a sports championship, I wanted to read and understand books that no one around me read.

Later in high school, two other vastly dissimilar books moved my understanding of literature and reading forward again: Edgar Lee Master’s poetry collection Spoon River Anthologyand Danny Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive, a tell-all biography of Jim Morrison. Though I don’t remember when I encountered that latter book, Spoon Rivercame to me through a theatrical adaptation we put on when I was a junior in high school. (The book, published in 1915, contains interconnected monologues spoken from the grave by the town’s dead citizens.) After the show was over, I went out and bought the book to read all of the poems, and this experience led me to two realizations: that people carry things inside themselves that the rest of us never know, and that I loved poetry. Where The Stranger was the first literary work that made me look deeply and critically at the world outside, Spoon River made me look deeply and critically at the world inside. By contrast, that second work – a mass-market paperback about hippie-era Los Angeles – taught me something that neither Camus, nor Nietzsche, nor Masters could: that writing could be cool, and that nonfiction could be, too. Books didn’t have to be dull and droll— they could be about rock stars.

After high school, reading became a way of life. Working, attending a commuter college, and living at home with my mother severely limited “the college experience” for me, which led me regularly and often into the arms of literature. Reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans one after the other at age eighteen fertilized the seed that was planted by No One Here Gets Out Alive— a life lived on the edge could be a writer’s material. Discovering the Beats then led me to Henry Miller’s lurid and wild Tropic of Cancerand to Richard Brautigan’s quirky novels Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar. My affection for Kerouac also led me to his literary idol Thomas Wolfe, whose florid and sprawling Look Homeward, Angel is heartbreakingly sad and beautiful. Somewhere in there, Walt Whitman came into my purview via Allen Ginsberg, and along the way, possibly via Camus, I found Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer (Le Gran Meaulnes), which is still my favorite coming-of-age novel.

Stranded in pre-internet Alabama, reading meant everything. These were the years between the release of Nirvana’s Bleach and the suicide of Kurt Cobain; during the years that REM put out Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Monster; in the five-year span that started with Say Anything and ended with Reality Bites. . . And it makes me sad that I don’t see young people reading like I used to, for the reasons I used to. And don’t tell me that anything on the internet is even a remote parallel, and don’t compare the books I just listed to Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. These literary idols of mine didn’t offer readily available screen adaptations or collectible merchandise to garner revenue from my isolated and desperate teenage sense that there absolutely must be something more out there, something more than what was at arm’s length. Back then, there were only the words on the pages, words were so masterfully strung together that nothing else was necessary. Not followers or subscribers, not clicks or likes, not trending or sales ranking, not chat rooms or fan conventions . . . just the words on the page. And, with reading, that’s the way it ought to be.

A mid-winter Deep Southern Gen X sampler, from “the lists”

The section in level:deepsouth called “the lists” is for collecting and sharing articles, sound files, videos, and images from Generation X’s early years in the Deep South and from today. Below is a sampler.

The Moreland Hometown Heritage Museum in Moreland, Georgia

This site is a tribute to the hornery and peculiar Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard, whose distinctly Southern commentary and humor was loved by some and offensive to others. Grizzard died of a heart attack in 1994. 

“Tie a Rope to the Back of the Bus” by Superchunk, from No Pocky for Kitty (1991)

Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Superchunk was staple of indie music in the 1990s. This video for a song on their second album shows them both goofing off and playing live.

South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride through Slavery’s Old Backyard by Eddy L. Harris (1993)

Eddy Harris was relatively well-known from his 1988 book Mississippi Solo and 1992’s Native Stranger when he published this book about driving a BMW motorcycle across the South to figure out what it meant to him as a black man.


 

The Temple of Oxford on Pharr

by Francie Klopotic

It’s a hot summer night in 1993, and it’s one o’clock in the morning. I am a 27 year old in Decatur, a suburb on the eastern edge of Atlanta, and I need a reading fix.

Keys in hand, I jump in the car and drive to Buckhead. The radio is tuned to 99X. The station feeds me “How Soon Is Now?” from The Smiths.

Interstate traffic is light on this Saturday night as I wind my way up I-85 and take the Piedmont exit. My destination? That miraculous and awe-inspiring spaceship-shaped bookstore, a beacon of intellectual light perched on the edge of Pharr Road.

She is my favorite professor, my companion in the darkest of times, my trusted confidante. As long as I can make it there by closing time at 2:00 AM, I’ll be fine.

Parking is scarce, even at this hour. I pull into the driveway and find a space behind the building. I kill the engine. Music pours from a building nearby. I walk around to the main entrance, my feet keeping time with the beat.

The glass door opens with a gentle tug, and I make my way past rows of bookshelves that greet me in the entryway. Folks lean in to browse new titles. A soft scent of paper and bookbinding fills the air. The interior lighting is just right, not too dim and not too bright. The sound of pages turning under a blanket of soft jazz lulls me into a meditative state.

I have entered the temple of Oxford Books, Atlanta’s sanctuary of the written word. There is no store in the whole of the city more sacred to me than this. Like others who are drawn into her literary cathedral, I find myself a devotee.

High ceilings in this former car dealership give the building a church-like feel. The cashier counter sits in the middle of the store like an oversized pulpit. Employees in blue vests engage a throng of shoppers in light banter. The soft sound of happy voices makes sweet music. It is the Oxford choir.

I look at the customers. A greasy-haired teen in flannel shirt sits on the floor reading Kerouac. There are others like us in this congregation of book lovers, young GenXers in ripped jeans and combat boots scattered amidst the throngs of beatniks and hippies, academics and scholars. We have come together to worship at the altar of knowledge and inspiration housed within the southeast’s largest indie bookstore.

The massive staircase to the round-as-a-doughnut top floor tempts me with its vast selection of metaphysics, philosophy, and mythology books. Normally I’d hit the upstairs first to scour the titles for a Nietzsche or a Campbell, but my holy place on this pilgrimage is the newsstand on the ground floor. This is my Mecca and it holds a huge variety of publications. Glossy covers draw me in as I approach the rows of magazine racks that seem a mile long. One section of publications flows seamlessly into the next. From poetry chapbooks to soft-core porn, there is something for every taste and predilection. Anything and everything a person can imagine sits waiting to be discovered in these tightly packed racks.

Arts, literature, and poetry draw me in like a siren’s call, and right here on the bottom rack of the shelf nearest the window is where I first met Utne Reader.

It’s a new month, which means there’s a new issue. Dressed in cover art worthy of the Utne name, this “best of the alternative press” has become something akin to forbidden fruit, opening both my eyes and my mind to thoughts, philosophies, and politics that lie to the left of age-old Southern traditions.

They are the same age-old traditions in which I was raised.

Here in these pages I learn what people in New York are thinking, what people in Los Angeles are doing, and what people in Chicago are making.

Every new issue excites me to the core and stretches my imagination. I envision what it must be like to live, work, and play in such a huge city. These thoughts, however, draw me back to the city in which I find myself.

Atlanta, “a city too busy to hate,” a city on the brink of greatness, is adjusting well to her status as the Big Apple of the New South. She is growing up, expanding, welcoming. She knows all too well her complicated past and has chosen to set her sights toward a future filled with hope.

Each and every month, Utne Reader helps me do the same. The magazine is there as a comforting ally, taking me by the hand and easing my innocent-to-the-ways-of-the-world mind into a wider and all-encompassing perspective.

Letters to the editor are always the first bits I consume. The letters remind me that I’m not the only one in the world with an insatiable appetite for culture. I feel less alone. The letters provide something of a subversive edge to the magazine and this excites me. Utne is also my go-to for book reviews. It is within these pages that I first discovered “Pigs in Heaven” by my new favorite writer, Barbara Kingsolver.

I grab an unread issue from the back of the stack and head to the register.

The cashier takes my copy of Utne and smiles. She offers me a knowing grin and rings up my purchase. Under the soulful sounds of John Coltrane that emanate from unseen speakers, she slips the magazine into a bag and hands it to me.

I take my treasure and exit the assembly. The door opens to oppressive heat. The humidity hasn’t let up since I entered the store. I walk into a wall of wet air and plow through it toward the parking lot.

Once seated in my car, I set my Utne on the passenger seat and turn the key in my old Chevy. The stereo awakens in time for Robert Smith of The Cure to ask his fervent question: “Why can’t I be you?”


Francie Klopotic is a visual artist and a writer. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, she lives with one foot in the mundane and the other in the mystical. Francie has been creating stories for most of her life, weaving tales that blend aspects of the arcane with personal experience and dreamy flights of fancy. She currently lives in Augusta and spends her time between Atlanta and Savannah, sharing her life with her husband and their two cats.