Is Charles Bukowski a Self-Help Guru? Hear Five of His Brutally Honest, Yet Oddly Inspiring, Poems and Decide for Yourself

I don't know if he’s been replaced as a major influence on young, restless (and almost exclusively male) aspiring writers, but once upon a time—if you weren’t into the romantic wanderlust of Kerouac but still considered yourself a fringe character—it might be to the hard-boiled shit-talking of wise old man Charles Bukowski that you turned. Upon first learning this, and being a busy college student, I decided to take a crash course and checked out a documentary.

I did not find myself charmed all at once. But one can fall in love with an author’s persona yet loathe them on the page. Bukowski’s crudeness and bad humor on film could not hide the deep wells of sadness in which he seemed to swim, as if—like some ancient cynic philosopher—he knew something profound and terrible and spared us the telling of it by posing as a drunken, half-mad street-corner raconteur. I had to go and read him.

In his idiom—that of an eloquent streetwise barfly—Bukowski can be every bit as passionate and profound as his hero Dostoevsky. His unforgettable mixing of comic seediness and casual abuse with a deeply tragic mourning over the human condition, while not to everyone’s taste, make his decades-long struggle out of penury and obscurity a feat worthy of the telling in his semi-autobiographical prose and poetry.




But does it make him a role model? For anyone but certain young, mostly male, aspiring writers maybe spending more time drinking than writing, that is?

A fair number of people seem to think so, and I leave it to you to decide, first by listening to the Bukowski poems read here, posted on YouTube with heavy, inspirational background music. Some are given new titles to sound more like self-help seminars—such as “Reinvent Your Life” at the top (originally “No Leaders, Please”). The video reading called “Go all the way,” second from top, changes the title of “Roll the Dice,” a classic picture of Bukowski’s uncompromising commitment to “going all the way,” even if it means “freezing on a park bench” and “losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind.”

Solidly middle-class parents might approve of the first poem’s sentiments, which could be wedged into a suitably vague, yet bold-sounding commencement speech or a job recruiter’s pep talk. But “Roll the Dice” simply goes too far. “It could mean jail, it could mean derision, mockery, isolation”? This won’t do at all. Hear another reading of “Roll the Dice” by inspirational rock star Bono further up, just after the more Bukowski-like Tom Waits reads “The Laughing Heart,” frequently referenced for its intensity of feeling. Like Thomas Hardy or Leonard Cohen, the bard of the barstools could look life straight in the eye, see all of its bleakness and violence, and still manage at times to catch a divine glimmer.

And for the many aspirants to whom Bukowski has appealed, we have, further up, “So, You Want to Be a Writer?” Before you hear, or read, this poem, be advised: these are not warm words of encouragement or helpful life-coaching in verse. It is the kind of raw talk no respectable writing teacher will give you, and maybe they’re right not to, who’s to say? Except a man who went all the way, froze on park benches, went to jail, lost girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe his mind? Read an excerpt of Bukowski’s writing advice below, and just above, hear the author himself read “Friendly Advice to a Lot of Young Men,” which urges them to do virtually anything they like, “But don’t write poetry.”

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Amanda Palmer Sings a Heartfelt Musical Tribute to YA Author Judy Blume on Her 80th Birthday

Art saves lives, and so does author Judy Blume. While some of her novels are intended for adult readers, and others for the elementary school set, her best known books are the ones that speak to the experience of being a teenage girl.

For many of us coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Blume was our best—sometimes only—source when it came to sex, menstruation, masturbation, and other topics too taboo to discuss. She answered the questions we were too shy to ask. Her characters’ interior monologues mirrored our own.

The honesty of her writing earned her millions of grateful young fans, and plenty of attention from those who still seek to keep her titles out of libraries and schools.

While her stories are not autobiographical, her compassion is born of experience.

Here she is on Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, a tattered paperback copy of which made the rounds of my 6th grade class, like the precious contraband it was:

When I was in sixth grade, I longed to develop physically like my classmates. I tried doing exercises, resorted to stuffing my bra, and lied about getting my period. And like Margaret, I had a very personal relationship with God that had little to do with organized religion. God was my friend and confidant. But Margaret's family is very different from mine, and her story grew from my imagination.

On It's Not the End of the World:

…in the early seventies I lived in suburban New Jersey with my husband and two children, who were both in elementary school. I could see their concern and fear each time a family in our neighborhood divorced. What do you say to your friends when you find out their parents are splitting up? If it could happen to them, could it happen to us?

At the time, my own marriage was in trouble but I wasn't ready or able to admit it to myself, let alone anyone else. In the hope that it would get better I dedicated this book to my husband. But a few years later, we, too, divorced. It was hard on all of us, more painful than I could have imagined, but somehow we muddled through and it wasn't the end of any of our worlds, though on some days it might have felt like it.

And on Forever, which won an A.L.A. Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults, 20 years after its original publication:

My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970's), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined. Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.

The heartfelt lyrics of Amanda Palmer’s recent paean to Blume, who turned 80 this week, confirm that the singer-songwriter was among the legions of young girls for whom this author made a difference.

In her essay, "Why Judy Blume Matters," Palmer recalls coming up with a list of influences to satisfy the sort of question a rising indie musician is frequently asked in interviews. It was a “carefully curated” assortment of rock and roll pedigree and obscurities, and she later realized, almost exclusively male.

This song, which name checks so many beloved characters, is a passionate attempt to correct this oversight:

Perhaps the biggest compliment you could give a writer ― or a writer of youth fiction ― is that they’re so indelible they vanish into memory, the way a dream slips away upon waking because it’s so deeply knitted into the fabric of your subconscious. The experiences of her teenage characters ― Deenie, Davey, Tony, Jill, Margaret ― are so thoroughly enmeshed with my own memories that the line between fact and fiction is deliciously thin. My memories of these characters, though I’d prefer to call them “people” ― of Deenie getting felt up in the dark locker room during the school dance; of Davey listlessly making and stirring a cup of tea that she has no intention of drinking; of Jill watching Linda, the fat girl in her class, being tormented by giggling bullies ― are all as vivid, if not more so, as my own memories…

Palmer’s husband, Neil Gaiman, puts in a cameo in the video’s final moments as one of many readers immersed in Blume’s oeuvre.

Readers, did a special book cover from your adolescence put in an appearance?

For more on Judy Blume’s approach to character and story, consider signing up for her $90 online Master Class.

Name your own price to download Judy Blume by Amanda Palmer here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Joan Didion Creates a Handwritten List of the 19 Books That Changed Her Life

If you've read much Joan Didion, you've almost surely come across an observation or phrase that has changed the way you look at California, the media, or the culture of the late 20th century — or indeed, changed your life. But if life-changing writers have all had their own lives changed by the writers before them, which writers made Joan Didion the Joan Didion whose writing still exerts an influence today? Conveniently enough, the author of Play It as It LaysSlouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album once drew up a list of the books that changed her life, and it surfaced on Instagram a few years ago:

  1. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  2. Victory by Joseph Conrad
  3. Guerrillas by V.S. Naipaul
  4. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  5. Wonderland by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  7. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  10. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara
  11. The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
  12. The Novels of Henry James: Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw
  13. Speedboat by Renata Adler
  14. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  15. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
  16. The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
  17. Collected Poems by Robert Lowell
  18. Collected Poems by W.H. Auden
  19. The Collected Poems by Wallace Stevens

In 1978, when Didion had already become a new-journalism icon, The Paris Review's Linda Kuehl asked her whether any writer influenced her more than others. "I always say Hemingway," she replied, "because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time." Teaching A Farewell to Arms, her number-one most influential book, she "fell right back into those sentences. I mean they're perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes."

Didion's list also includes other masters of the sentence, albeit most of them possessed of sensibilities quite distinct from Hemingway's. Henry James, for instance: "He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them." Consider them alongside the other writers among her favored nineteen, from novelists like Emily Brontë and Joyce Carol Oates to poets like Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden to figures with one foot in literature and the other in journalism like George Orwell and Norman Mailer, and you've got a mix that no two aspiring writers could read and come out sounding exactly alike. No surprise that such a set of influences would produce a writer like Didion, so often imitated but, in her niche, never equaled.

via BrainPickings

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What’s the Origin of Time Travel Fiction?: New Video Essay Explains How Time Travel Writing Got Its Start with Charles Darwin & His Literary Peers

The idea of time travel is probably as old as the feeling of regret, but the desire to go back in time is not the same as the theoretical notion that it might actually be possible to do so. Where, the Nerdwriter wonders above, did this idea originate? And where did time travel narratives come from in general? Time travel, he argues, “as a device to tell stories, is a relatively recent phenomenon.” And time travel as a specific genre of literature is just a little over a hundred years old.

An important point of clarification: We find instances of time travel—or at least a kind of parallax—in many ancient texts, where some characters experience time differently in different realms and dimensions and can thus see the past or future in our world. In the Ramayana, a figure named Kakbhushubdi lives like the Watchers in the Marvel Comics’ universe—outside of time, observing millennia passing. (It is said he sees the same events happen over and over, with different outcomes each time.)




This is not strictly what we mean by time travel. Yet many ancient stories do show humans going back in time, or going to sleep and waking up in the future, through divine agency. In the Buddhist Pali texts, we learn that the Devas experience one hundred human years as a single day (an idea echoed in the Bible). In the Japanese legend of Urashima Taro, a man visits the palace of the Dragon God, and when he comes back 300 years have passed. But the Nerdwriter is talking about something different than these many narrative instances of time dilation (hundreds of years before Einstein elaborated the concept), though the same devices appear in modern time travel stories.

A significant distinction, the video suggests, lies in the very concept of time. Many ancient people believed that time was cyclical—hence the many variations on the same themes in Kakbhushubdi’s experience—or that time was malleable, subject to divine interruption and disruption. After Darwin’s Origin of Species and the rapid acceptance of evolution (if not natural selection), popular notions of time changed. The modern time travel genre begins with broadly Darwinian ideas as a central premise. In the popular imagination, evolution meant inevitable, linear progress, and thus was born a form of literature called the Utopian Romance.

One such novel, Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Looking Backward, has the distinction of being the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur, with over one million copies sold. Why haven’t you heard of it before? Probably because the book envisions a character who falls asleep and wakes up in a socialist utopia 113 years in the future (the year 2000). It exerted significant influence on the many socialist movements of the time, and “Bellamy clubs” sprang up around the country, advocating for the nationalization of private property. Few Americans, at least, have learned about the widespread popularity of socialism in the U.S. during the late 19th century because… well, you tell me.

But Bellamy’s ideas are embedded in the genre, in work after work we are familiar with (take the parody version in Futurama). In the modern time travel novel, utopias “are no longer on a lost island or a different world, they were in the future.” This observation applies most readily to a more famous foundational text from 1895, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which borrows from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but sets the action not in a distant land but in the very distant future, the year 802701. Wells’ “subterranean workers, the Morlocks, and the decadent Eloi” who profit from their labor, notes the British Library, do not differ that much from humans of the past or the present—they have evolved technologically and physically, but are still subject to exploitation and violence.

Where Gulliver’s Travels can be read as a misanthropic undermining of notions of cultural superiority, Wells’ novel satirizes the idea that human evolution implies an improvement in human beneficence. The book set a pattern "for science-fiction to critique extreme developments of class." In both Bellamy and Wells, time travel—whether achieved by science or a Rip Van Winkle sleep—presents an occasion for utopian or dystopian allegory. The time travel genre took on a new dimension after Einstein, when the science of relativity replaced Darwinian evolution as the central preoccupation, and paradoxes and rules became central concerns. This shift highlights another important feature of the modern time travel genre—its obsession with cause and effect, and therefore with the very nature and possibility of story itself.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on Its 200th Anniversary: An Animated Primer to the Great Monster Story & Technology Cautionary Tale

200 years ago, 18-year-old Mary Shelley did an extraordinary thing. After a dreary winter evening spent indoors telling ghost stories during the storied “year without a summer,” she took her idea and turned it into a novel. In January of 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus appeared, first published anonymously in an edition of 500 copies, with a preface by her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Granted, Mary Shelley wasn’t an ordinary 18-year-old. In addition to her romance with Shelley and friendship with Lord Byron, she was also the daughter of philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Which is to say that she was steeped in Romantic poetry and Victorian thought from a very early age, and conversant with the intellectual controversies of the day.

Nonetheless, the young novelist’s achievement—her synthesis of so many 19th-century anxieties into a monster story rivaled only, perhaps, by Bram Stoker’s Dracula—remains as impressive now as it was then. Shelley tells the legendary tale of the novel’s composition herself in an introduction to the heavily revised 1831 edition. In the animated video above, scholar Iseult Gillespie sketches out the book's basics (as we know, Frankenstein is the name of the monster’s creator; the monster himself remains nameless), then briefly explains some of its “multiple meanings."




We may be conditioned by the genius of James Whale and Mel Brooks to think of the novel’s center as the doctor’s electrified laboratory, but “the plot turns on a chilling chase” between monster and doctor, and what a chase it is. The book’s gripping action scenes get badly undersold in conceptions of Frankenstein (or the monster, rather) as a sad, stupid, lumbering beast. In fact, Frankenstein, says Gillespie, “is one of the first cautionary tales about artificial intelligence.” The novel’s Romantic interest in mythology (spelled out more directly by Percy two years later in his Prometheus Unbound) and its use of Gothic devices to evoke dread mark it as a complicated work, and its creature as a very complicated monster—a perpetually relevant symbol of the horrors unchecked scientific experimentation might unleash.

Shelley also inscribed her personal trauma in the text; though well-known as the daughter of the famed Wollstonecraft—author of the “key feminist text” A Vindication of the Rights of WomenShelley never actually got to know her mother. Wollstonecraft died of complications in childbirth, and Shelley, haunted by guilt, and her grief over several miscarriages she suffered, the first at age 16, uses what seems like a story solely about male creative agency to introduce themes of childbirth “as both creative and destructive.”

But mostly Frankenstein comes to us as a novel about the “power of radical ideas to expose darker areas of life.” Though it may do the novel a critical injustice to call it the Black Mirror (or Prometheus) of its time, the anxious contemporary anthology show is inseparable from a lineage of creative texts in horror and science fiction that owe a tremendous debt to the brilliance of the young Mary Shelley. For more info on the origins of this famous book, read Jill Lepore's 200th-anniversary essay at The New Yorker, and see all of the known manuscripts digitized at the Shelley-Godwin archive.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Artist Re-Envisions National Parks in the Style of Tolkien’s Middle Earth Maps

J.R.R. Tolkien imagined Middle-Earth by drawing not just from far-flung lands and old myths but the English landscape all around him. Of course, everyone who reads The Lord of the Rings trilogy, let alone the related books written by Tolkien as well as his followers, has their own way of envisioning the place, and those who go especially deep may even start seeing their own, real environments as versions of Middle-Earth. That seems to have happened in the case of Dan Bell, an English artist who maps his homeland's national parks in an artistic style similar to the one in which Tolkien rendered Middle-Earth.

Bell "began reading Tolkien’s books when he was 11 or 12 years old, and fell in love with them," writes The Verge's Andrew Liptak. "In particular, he was struck by Tolkien’s maps." To start, he "works from an open source Ordnance Survey map, and begins drawing by hand," adding in such additional details, not always found in most national parks, as "forests, Hobbit holes, towers, and castles." Having so adapted the national parks of the United Kindgom "as well as places like Oxford, London, Yellowstone National Park, and George R.R. Martin’s Westeros," he's made them available for purchase on his site.

Most of us who first encounter The Lord of the Rings at the age Bell did have surely wished, if only for a moment or two, that we could live in Middle-Earth ourselves. Bell's maps remind us that places like Middle-Earth always come in some way from, and resonate on some level with, the real Earth on which we have no choice but to live. Much like how the settings of science fiction stories, no matter how technologically amplified or culturally twisted and turned, always reflect the time of the story's composition, thoroughly realized fantasy realms, no matter how fantastical — how many hobbit-holes, castles, or Eyes of Sauron with which they may be dotted — are never 100 percent made up. Just ask the tourist industry of New Zealand.

Enter Bell's map collection here.

via The Verge

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

1,600 Occult Books Now Digitized & Put Online, Thanks to the Ritman Library and Da Vinci Code Author Dan Brown

Back in December we brought you some exciting news. Thanks to a generous donation from Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, Amsterdam’s Ritman Library—a sizable collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects—has been digitizing thousands of its rare texts under a digital education project cheekily called “Hermetically Open.” We are now pleased to report, less than two months later, that the first 1,617 books from the Ritman project have come available in their online reading room. The site is still in beta, so to speak; in their Facebook announcement, the Ritman admits they are “still improving the whole presentation,” which is a bit clunky at the moment. But for fans and students of this literature, a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Visitors should be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. Latin, the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, predominates, and it’s a peculiar Latin at that, laden with jargon and alchemical terminology. Other books appear in German, Dutch, and French. Readers of some or all of these languages will of course have an easier time than monolingual English speakers, but there is still much to offer those visitors as well.




In addition to the pleasure of paging through an old rare book, even virtually, English speakers can quickly find a collection of readable books by clicking on the “Place of Publication” search filter and selecting Cambridge or London, from which come such notable works as The Man-Mouse Takin in a Trap, and tortur’d to death for gnawing the Margins of Eugenius Philalethes, by Thomas Vaughn, published in 1650.

The language is archaic—full of quirky spellings and uses of the “long s”—and the content is bizarre. Those familiar with this type of writing, whether through historical study or the work of more recent interpreters like Aleister Crowley or Madame Blavatsky, will recognize the many formulas: The tracing of magical correspondences between flora, fauna, and astronomical phenomena; the careful parsing of names; astrology and lengthy linguistic etymologies; numerological discourses and philosophical poetry; early psychology and personality typing; cryptic, coded mythology and medical procedures. Although we’ve grown accustomed through popular media to thinking of magical books as cookbooks, full of recipes and incantations, the reality is far different.

Encountering the vast and strange treasures in the online library, one thinks of the type of the magician represented in Goethe’s Faust, holed up in his study,

Where even the welcome daylight strains
But duskily through the painted panes.
Hemmed in by many a toppling heap
Of books worm-eaten, gray with dust,
Which to the vaulted ceiling creep

The library doesn’t only contain occult books. Like the weary scholar Faust, alchemists of old “studied now Philosophy / And Jurisprudence, Medicine,— / And even, alas! Theology.” Click on Cambridge as the place of publication and you’ll find the work above by Henry More, “one of the celebrated ‘Cambridge Platonists,’” the Linda Hall Library notes, “who flourished in mid-17th-century and did their best to reconcile Plato with Christianity and the mechanical philosophy that was beginning to make inroads into British natural philosophy.” Those who study European intellectual history know well that More’s presence in this collection is no anomaly. For a few hundred years, it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate the pursuits of theology, philosophy, medicine, and science (or “natural philosophy”) from those of alchemy and astrology. (Isaac Newton is a famous example of a mathematician/scientist/alchemist/believer in strange apocalyptic predictions.)

Given the Ritman’s alacrity and eagerness to publish this first batch of texts, even as it works to smooth out its interface, we’ll likely see many hundreds more books become available in the next month or so. For updates, follow the Ritman Library and The Embassy of the Free Mind—Dan Brown’s own Dutch library of rare occult books—on Facebook.

Enter the Ritman's new digital collection of occult texts here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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