On Zoning Out
A brief break from the books
Books at Printed Matter
I like reading. By now, this much is clear. But I also go through spells when my inclination to read - or to even think too much about anything beyond the day’s immediate concerns - almost completely ebbs away. While somewhat inefficient for someone in my line of work, these spells are a necessary antidote for a person who spends so much time rattling around inside the confines of her own mind. Such was the case on a recent extended trip to the US, for which I packed a small library of books and returned having finished not a single one.
Part of the allure (and privilege) of travel is that it allows us to disengage from the mundanities that can consume our day-to-day. When we are freed from having to consider the weekly shop or the toppling laundry pile, we are granted space to contemplate life’s bigger questions and dilemmas. (This is also the reason why men have dominated philosophical discourse since the beginning of civilisation, but that’s a newsletter for another day.)
I usually relish the kind of dreamy, contemplative thinking I can do when I’m wandering through an unfamiliar city, or floating on my back in the sea. But as the global landscape darkened throughout the course of my trip, I confess that I numbed out; struggling to fully process the horrifying war imagery populating newsfeeds and timelines, but equally unable to indulge myself with cerebral ideas and musings.
It’s easier to do this in Los Angeles, where I spent part of my trip. That’s not a diss to the city’s much-maligned intellectual profile - some of the smartest people I know live in LA - but rather to the surreal, sunbleached headspace that its climate and car culture engender. There is something about waking up to the same flat, blue sky every day, and rarely (if ever) walking on the street, that causes the rhythms and tumults of the outside world to melt away. In LA, or at least in my experience of LA, you’re at once hyper-present and extremely zoned out. It’s a trippy feeling. But then, LA is a trippy kind of place.
All of which is not to say that the past month has been a complete intellectual vacuum. Before arriving in LaLa Land, I was lucky enough to catch the last days of Toni Morrison’s Black Book at David Zwirner Gallery. Curated by Hilton Als, the exhibition offered a moving collection of notes, letters, photos, and objects documenting the making of The Black Book, Morrison’s “panorama of Black American life” (I was particularly enchanted by the exchange between Morrison and her friend and collaborator, Toni Cade Bambara. “Hi, Toni!” “Hey, Toni”.) Originally published in 1973, The Black Book was reissued on its 35th anniversary and again in 2019, so you can still pick up a copy.
After seeing the show I stopped at Printed Matter a few blocks away, which boasts the most dizzying selection of ‘zines and independently published books I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I can - and have - spent hours moving slowly through its densely-stacked aisles. On this particular visit, I spent time flipping through Publishing as Practice, a book from Ulises exploring publishing “as an incubator for new forms of editorial, curatorial and artistic practice.”
Among those featured was my friend Martine Syms - an artist, self-described ‘conceptual entrepreneur’, and founder of the imprint Dominica Publishing - who had characteristically brilliant thoughts on the share on the subject:
“I think of publishing as making things public. As we do that we can make ideas public, and in doing that, you make publics around the ideas.”
In between pilates classes and smoothie runs in LA (told you I zoned out), I paid a visit to Alias Books East in Atwater Village, which is certainly one of my favourite bookshops in the city. It’s rare that I leave without finding a gem: this time it was Dick Hebdige’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). Although seminal, it will be interesting to see how it holds up in the context of today’s (post-subcultural?) landscape, when the kinds of scenes and tribes Hebdige analysed now exist almost solely online. I’m pleased to report that my return to London has seen my reading/thinking mode switch back to ‘on’, so I’ll let you know when I’ve found out.
Hope your Spring is off to a good start,