I owe a lot to books.
At thirteen, my parents divorced; I might very well have never seen my father again, if not for the occasional run-in at the local library. Those random encounters were engendered by one thing: our mutual love of books. The majority of my memories about my dad, though not speaking highly to his parental discretion, are also in some way book-related. He gave me one of my first copies of Helter Skelter*, and later entrusted me with his pilfered-from-the-library copy of The Preppy Handbook. Inside the book, the khaki-clad, buttoned-down figures had been defaced with doodles of mustaches and cigars. He died three years after the split from my mother, and during one of our last get togethers, made a big to-do of giving me a beautiful antique copy of The Communist Manifesto. It probably would have gone on to become one of my most treasured possessions, had someone not stolen it from me later that year.
In junior high, when the majority of my friends’ parents designated me playmate non grata, I still retained a sleeping bag and table setting at my friend Alyson’s house. Her folks’ faith in me was unwavering. They actually thought I was a good influence. Why? Because I read.
Obsessive reading is a part of my identity.
I date men for their taste in books. I take scantily-clad photos of myself with books that I like and post them online as literacy campaigns. I write love letters to my favorite authors. There have been mornings, after taking Xanax, that I have woken up to find receipts in my email inbox for books that I have no memory of ordering. I’ve used books as sex aids — I can think of nothing hotter than reading aloud from Lydia Lunch’s Paradoxia before getting it on. There are certain passages in that book that instantly trigger a Pavlovian response in my girl parts. You’d think such powerful wordsmithery would guarantee Ms. Lunch a spot on my list of top three favorite writers. It doesn’t, though she’d definitely earn a spot in my top ten.
Whittling the list down to just three was proving to be a painful Sophie’s Choice, so I had to come up with criteria.
People have acknowledged for years that music is therapeutic. To change a mood is as easy as changing a CD or doing an iPod shuffle. You don’t hear this as much about reading. Maybe because it’s not as hit play instantaneous — the reading salve is a comfort you have to work for a bit.
That’s my criteria.
To be on my list, you have to have the power to transform my perspective in the moment. You have to write books and stories that, with a turn of a page or a twist of a phrase, push me, for today, at least- not to give up.
Inspiration is not enough. To be on the list of my top three favorite writers you have to make me want to live.
The following is a list of three writers who make me want to live:
1. David Wojnarowicz
There is a dividing line in the work of David Wojnarowicz, and that dividing line is AIDS. Pre-virus, David’s writings, all autobiographical, are those of a young man coming into his own as both artist and sexual being. The Waterfront Journals, a collection of monologues from this period, is a testament to his spongelike ability to absorb the sound and syntax of all he encountered, whether after just five minutes in passing, or after three hours of orgiastic congress. Wojnarowicz is also a historian. Post-AIDS, his writings document a New York City at the tipping point, a New York City that would be forever altered by a virus targeting the very community that gives voice to its hopes and dreams. In In the Shadow of the American Dream, David is at his most seditious and most inciting: a man trying to come to terms with the alien concept that while thousands lay dead and dying, elected officials won’t publicly utter the name of the virus responsible. As the events at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010 suggest, over 20 years after his death, David remains a formidable adversary to anyone who would choose to deny or look away.
2. Cookie Mueller
David Wojnarowicz told his friends that the only time he was ever truly starstruck was when he met Cookie Mueller. A hot mess in a tight dress, Cookie Mueller was the den mother of the 1980’s New York Art Scene, writing her first novel by the time she was eleven and acting in the early films of John Waters and Amos Poe. Though her life span was tragically abbreviated, her writings are packed with everyday adventures (everyday being relative to the fun madness that enveloped Cookie’s life like a cloak) and a lust for life that jumps from the page. John Waters compared her writings to that of “A lunatic Uncle Remus”, and a random sampling of her novella Walking Through Clear Water On A Pool Painted Black finds Cookie go-go dancing in New Jersey (for a killer with a finger in his pocket), accidentally burning down her friends’ house, and saving the life of a friend who overdoses at his birthday party with an injection of salt. Her death at age 40 conspired to keep her body of work slim, and the bulk of it — her art and advice columns, essays, and novellas, fit between the covers of the 293 page Ask Dr. Mueller. Amy Scholder writes in her preface, “I did not know Cookie, but these stories make me feel like I do.” I can relate. I never met Cookie, but I still consider her my hot mess mentoress.
3. Rev. Jen Miller
Rev. Jen Miller is the emissary of all things art related not smug or snotty. The Village Voice has described her as “a beacon of hope –that the unconventional can thrive among trendy restaurants where they can’t afford to eat.” Her many books, including Rev. Jen’s Really Cool Neighborhood, Sex Symbol for the Insane, and Elf Girl, detail her adventures in survival — survival of the self in a world increasingly unimpressed by individuality, and the survival of the NYC art scene she sometimes seems to carry on her back. She’s degraded by The Man at work and by the men in her love life and still manages to retain her humor and singular vision. There’s an astonishing lack of fear in the face of foolishness within the anecdotes she relays, whether performing in a striptease contest dressed as an old lady with a merkin, or allowing herself to be publically flogged at a sexy soiree for her Nerve.com column. Sincerity and truth, no matter how unflattering or despairing, are the guiding lights of her work. In another time, Rev. Jen might be leading a writer’s salon, or gossiping with Warhol as he made his prints, but the apathy of our own has conspired, so far at least, to keep widespread appreciation of her work at bay.
In Really Cool Neighborhood, Jen writes that she “loves painting, punk rock and Jack Kerouac.” One could reasonably assume that these interests and their ties to New York City might have helped to inspire Jen to move there from Maryland after high school. There’s something very romantic about residing in the same city and traveling the same streets that your heroes once did. Twenty years from now, her books in hand, I predict Jen’s work will inspire future generations to make their own trek to the city she called home, and to travel her same streets.
*One of my first: From the ages of 13-17, I had many copies of “Helter Skelter.” My mother kept throwing them out.
By Fiona Helmsley, Contributor