Wingdings

Years ago, I worked in a bookshop in Manchester. The bookshop was on Oldham Street, and was occasionally impossibly cool, particularly in the minds of those of its customers that saw themselves as impossibly cool and therefore assigned the value to the bookshop by association. We sold (and they still sell now, years gone by without me) books on street art, fashion and other hip pursuits as well as magazines that cover much of the same ground. I used to rip the covers off massive out of date fashion journals and hand the carcass over to my friend studying fashion at Manchester Metropolitan University. This greatly excited my friend, though I was completely illiterate when it came to fashion and could never understand how the magazines were so expensive in the first place.

To be fair, it was a great bookstore and in a increasingly hip part of town. The main evidence for this being a fairly recent shift in fortune for Oldham Street was offered by the presence of a methadone clinic around the corner and a pub down the road frequented by the kind of football fan the television programmes on Sky and ESPN mysteriously chose not to focus upon. I once spent the second half of a Manchester United – Liverpool FA Cup match in there, having covered my friend Damien so he could watch the first half, afraid to speak out loud in case my exposure lead to violence, or worse, an awkward social situation. I remember distinctly a baby in a buggy wearing a waistcoat. There was something chilling about an infant in formal wear. I tried to avoid his gaze.

In any case, such remnants of actual English life didn’t intrude down in our section of Oldham Street. We had a Forbidden Planet across the road, a shop that specializes in comics and other fuel for early twenty-first century popular nerdage. They had great window space over there to show off their wares. I remember being most impressed by an action figure Nelly with detachable band aid accessory. We had a music store a couple of doors down, and I can’t remember the name but it was rather good. Next door on the other side stood a pub that did pretty good business in live music. I met the bassist of Gogol’s Bordello in the shop once and he was very nice. Half of My Chemical Romance came in to try extra-small sized t-shirts. I once asked a friendly North American why his card had “Broken Social Scene” on it and not a regular, human name. My favourite encounter was probably the one with the lead singer of Less Than Jake, who with an odd assortment of teenage hangers on hanging off him put me on the guest list for their show that night. I went for a pint with my friend Cormac instead, but I always thought it was nice of him. Then there were the near misses: Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand stood right outside the window in a tracksuit frankly not befitting a man paid millions to run around at pace, and Ryan Adams swung around in front of the same window apparently unsure as to whether to come in or go for a beer next door. It’s just as well next door won; I quite liked Adams’ music at the time and might actually have gushed over him, which would surely have caused me to cringe for years to come. I was also not at work the day that Debbie Harry came in to shop around, but I actually prefer it that way. Although it would have undoubtedly been exciting to meet Debbie Harry, I quite like having the story that she came in on my day off. I was probably watching reruns of Diagnosis Murder.

We had great books. I used to read through some of them on my lunch in the storage room at the back of the long narrow shop. I distinctly remember The End, a series of essays about Emigre magazine that actually served as the sixty-ninth and penultimate issue. Rudy Vanderlans wrote eloquently about life as a typographer and though I’ve never had the talent or inclination, I’ve found typography fascinating ever since. That’s a hell of a book really, to make someone fall in love with an entire trade, or discipline, or art form in just under a hundred and fifty pages. Some books I’m not sure people ever bought until December when we sold practically everything. I learned a lot about retail working for that bookshop.

The shop was owned by very clever people that understood, as one must, that selling anything is a business. This was something a lot of the customers whiffed on completely. I still remember, having given my notice with an uncertain move to Texas in my future, going through applications for my replacement. One young person wrote a cover letter in wingdings. Wingdings! My manager and I actually went to the effort of trying to convert the text back to a readable language, but either we were short of the technical skills needed or the person had actually sat down and typed wingdings for a few minutes. I suppose this was an attempt to impress us, but little did they know I had gotten the job at least partially because I wore a suit to the interview. My soon-to-be bosses laughed at me, quite hard, and took me for a pint. I still think I got the job because they associated the suit with a likelihood for dependability. Or punctuality, at least.

I always remember the letter in wingdings. Madness.

Of reading and all that comes with it

It’s hard to believe now, but I went about a decade without reading. A decade!!! I read, obviously. I didn’t merely wander around ignoring various signage and guessing the scores of major sporting events. I read constantly, as we all do. I did, however, inexplicably and unforgivably walk away from fiction for a whole decade. I loved fiction as a boy and as a young adult. I read constantly. I consumed books, devoured them, whatever very you like I used to take the information from books and put it in my brain. I distinctly remember my English teacher in sophomore year of high school (we used those terms in that particular high school) mocking me in front of all my peers in the recreation of a conversation with my father:

Father: But he reads books all the time!

Mr. Antonil: He’s not reading the books I give him!

I was, in fact, not reading the books that Mr. Antonil had given me. I was far more interested in the work of Robert Heinlein at the time. My love of Heinlein had come from a failed experiment with Kurt Vonnegut (note: eleven year old boys should probably not try and read Galapagos) after a prolonged journey towards science fiction from a solid base in fantasy. I had loved and read through Tolkien as had every author published in the 1970s, or so it seemed to me. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever astonished and bewildered me as a young reader, while David Eddings’ The Belgariad had more humble ambition but admirable execution. I read and I read and I read. Nothing stopped me.

That is until I graduated from university and decided that I wasn’t going to read books that weren’t of a certain standard. It was a horrifically snobbish attitude to take and one relatively forgivable of a snotty postgraduate at the age of 23, but the position survived for years. It was only with the relatively spontaneous decision to read Margaret Atwood in my early 30s that I broke out of the rut. The freedom that came afterwards was energizing and continues to be so. Now I look back and wonder how I managed to break from reading for so long.

Still, it can be hard to find the time. I have a job that requires reading, and although that should be Heaven itself poured from a flute down into ice cream with crusted fragments of peanuts and M&Ms and all kinds of delights, it isn’t. It just doesn’t work that way. Work is work. This is exacerbated by the fact that my “work” reading displaces my recreational reading. I have a shameless and not even remotely exceptional weakness for dystopian fiction, and I’d much rather be reading that than fascinating and well put together books on postwar Japanese culture. Human nature is a wonderful thing in all its dimensions.

In any case, this blog may or may not be cursed with more writing about reading, but what’s the harm, I say? In truth, the greatest thing about reviving one’s habit in reading is that it compels one to participate in the related habit of writing.