Our Reading Lives

Giving Up the Quest for Literary Hipsterdom

Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live.

This is a guest post by Aram Mrjoian, a writer of various fiction, online essays, and daily haikus. He is an avid reader and publishing professional. Follow him on Twitter: @AMrjoian575

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armisen readingI recently walked into Kaleidoscope Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and asked if they had a copy of either of the two editions of Blast!. Kaleidoscope is a small place, crammed to the ceilings with stacks of collectible comics in sooty plastic wrap and moldy tomes with broken spines, with a small island desk buried in the middle, harboring the one man that works there immovably.

“Ha, if you have six hundred bucks.” The guy replied.

This number did not surprise me. In fact, part of me was wondering why I bothered to ask in the first place. I knew the price would be exorbitant and unaffordable, but I wanted to prove to him the I was initiated. I hoped to demonstrate I was more than another wandering student or feigning hipster looking for a cheap copy of Ulysses or A Moveable Feast. (Not to say there is anything wrong with that, I own used copies of both of those books.)

Mainly I wanted to prove to the storeowner that I had some knowledge of the obscure books he exchanged with antediluvian college professors and wealthy collectors. I wanted to be taken seriously despite not being his usual clientele.

I blame this desire notably on my friend Tom. When we were in college, frequenting Curious Book Shop more so than our English class, he pushed me towards the lesser-known works of canonized writers that we read mostly to goad our own egos. This resulted in a self-serving advantage when discussing books, primarily amongst other English majors and youthful pseudo-intelligentsia.

When someone brought up the eerie perversity of Lolita, we were quick to add our own thoughts on Nabokov’s infamous novel, but would then counter with, “Have you read Invitation To A Beheading?” When asked about Henry Miller I would bring up The Colossus Of Maroussi before Tropic Of Cancer. Wyndham Lewis became one of our personal heroes, and I often talked about Sylvia Beach as if I were her close friend.

In retrospect, the word sophomoric comes glaringly to mind. Our imagined erudition was by all means arrogant and narcissistic, but it eventually served a humbling purpose. In time, I think both Tom and I reached the realization that we were digging ourselves into a hole, creating an abyss of references and proclaimed knowledge that essentially led nowhere. At the end of the day, we both read because we loved learning, not to make an ostentatious display.

One day I sat down for coffee with an older friend/mentor named Donnie, a man of immense book knowledge, and he mentioned Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon in passing as we conversed. An instant sense of panic surged through me when I realized I’d never read anything by either of these writers. I immediately found that I had turned reading into a competition, a hipster platitude that has become obscenely prevalent as of late. We create an arsenal of cultural references and use them to apotheosize ourselves. Luckily, the moment I came to this conclusion, I could start reading with a new perspective, regaining the same curious passion I used to have when my parents read to me before bed when I was small. I saw that the only reason I would speciously mislead people into believing I’ve read more than I have in actuality or bombastically articulate vague literary ideas is to hide my own insecurities. That in many ways the culture of reading can quickly be smeared from a communal and pivotal way to learn and be transformed into an isolating and exclusive way to socially expound personal intelligence. To put it simply, I got lost. I forgot that reading should be a way of unifying people rather than a way to show-off.

In the book I’m currently reading, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, there is a scene in which a character named Otto walks around a crowded party and keeps making the comment, “I’d say he was a latent heterosexual”, hoping that someone will acknowledge his cleverness and wit. At times, I groaned audibly as I read this scene, with the understanding that I used to do the same thing. I used to roam around parties and want my brilliance to be recognized. I would talk about books venomously and vituperate in some obscure hopes of being elevated amongst my peers. It was the moment I destroyed this reflex that I could at last sit down, relax, and regain my genuine love of reading.