Mediocre things can change our lives. When I think about the cultural products that have shaped me I can pick out a handful of The Great Works that have been truly formative, but a lot of what impressed itself upon my impressionable youth is stuff that I now find a little embarrassing, or ought to if I've got as much good taste as I tend to assume.
I've been thinking about this for a while. I remember being 16 and sitting at the coffee shop with a friend of mine who always seemed to have some terrible older boyfriend and the newest of her terrible older boyfriends. The conversation turned to books. The terrible boyfriend must have read a few, I suppose, but apparently not as many as he'd absolved himself from reading by declaring their very existence pretentious. In the latter category was Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
"I dunno, I see what you mean," I said. I knew already that I didn't like or respect this guy, but I found it almost physiologically necessary to defend every nicety of my vision of the world in those days. (Today I'd more likely roll my eyes and find a way to leave the table, tired coward.) "But on the other hand, I have to admit that there's a sense in which it changed my life."
I started to go on, but then something shifted in me or in the air or just in the snake-faced dude's expression, and made it clear that no further unpacking of this statement would be possible. One could nearly see the shiver of superiority traveling from over-gelled hair to belted jeans. He may still be drawing energy from it today.
So here is what I meant by that. I was not making a claim of value; I was simply stating a fact about the course of my existence.
I don't really know how I began to find adult literature to read. When I was probably 11 or 12 I began sidling from the YA section of the library over to the tall, dense adult stacks, not without a guilty glance to see whether my mom was following. (I was always scared to betray any change in myself as a child, perhaps supposing that my family had only just learned to love me and would have to start the whole process over again if they knew who I'd become. My heart raced when I had to tell my mom I wanted to start shaving my legs, or had gotten my period, or had decided to stop eating animal products; I never confessed to dating anyone until I was well into college. Even now when I am out in the world I feel compelled to retain my state of motion as long as anyone can see me, will keep running until my thighs burn rather than draw attention to myself by stopping.) So I know roughly when this happened, but I don't know on what principle I began making my selections and started building the chain of references and associations that would propel me through my phantom syllabus. My family mostly did not read books, and my friends who read were in thrall to fantasy and sci-fi, so however I chose, I did it on my own. And somehow, the year I was 14, I got to On the Road.
Before that, reading for me was mainly—to borrow a phrase from Michael Chabon, an author from whom I can remember no other sentences—"a kind of pyromania." I made my library selections in bulk. Words were a commodity I took entirely for granted, to be consumed as thoughtlessly as water from a drinking fountain in the hallway at school. You pass by and you partake; you are always at least a little bit thirsty, after all. Reading was the default state, and still is, as I cannot sit down to eat alone, relax on a park bench, or ride a bus without my nicotine-strong craving for something to read beginning to twitch. Or to use another metaphor it was a sort of steady job, one I loved but without the ambition and intentionality to make it a career.
I read On the Road and the idea that there were such things as literary style and literary culture began to take shape. In place of lucid and reasonable prose there was this torrent of impassioned chatter among people for whom writing and the living that fed it were holy duties. The rush of it all pulled me under within pages. When I had to return it to the library I put it on my Christmas list—which must have been on the assumption that my dad and stepmother would never bother cracking open a book that wasn't, say, obviously obscene, because just flipping through it again now I recall that there are whores and sex parties and drugs on every other page.
I think I had not yet found many models for interesting adult lives. I was reminiscing yesterday to Heather about the time when, at age five, I dismayed my mother by musing that the job I'd most like to have when I grew up was rounding up the shopping carts from the enormous parking lot at Meijer. My ideas about my future had all been in areas where you could essentially keep being a lone child hobbyist—Olympic figure skating, or painting, maybe. This book made me yearn for a sense of community, of collaboration, to become one of "the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing" and recruit others to my cause. (This made me even more obnoxious, definitely, obviously, but it also made me renounce the habit of boredom, which I've kept off my trail for the most part ever since.) It was my first brush with any kind of counterculture, and I wanted some.
It turned out that no one wanted to start the next Beat Generation with me (and I think that this is, pathetically, how I actually formulated the problem to myself), but I did other things. I began to see value in the very act of taking intense interest, in cultivating the power of enchanted attention to the world. So I took up languages and banged my head against complex physics and mathematics. I burned my way through Beat lit and let it lead me to other poems, other novels, bodies of cultural criticism, philosophers. Eventually I found other flesh-and-blood writers, in the poetry slam scene and in an arts-center writers' group that turned out to be one of the most important institutions of my teenage years. Possible paths through the adult world began to light up.
Probably all of my cultural pursuits have had similarly inauspicious beginnings. The first time I really noticed the electric guitar was some session player's corny solo on a Natalie Merchant tape; though I've just completed a country guitar class in which we made our way through Buck and Hank and Merle and Johnny, my first country music loves were Garth and Shania. The first mosh pits I dove into were at terrible third-wave ska concerts. All junk of various grades, created and loved in absolute earnest.
I think some people have been better at rolling along with the popular culture of their times, so that they're pushed out of the music and books and movies they enjoyed very naturally as the culture moves on. Then, when they're a little older it is easy to laugh affectionately at those vintage selves. It's okay to keep them around, framed in warm irony and nostalgia, and compare them without much embarrassment to the collections of other people of your generation (though a little embarrassment usually must be feigned for decorum's sake).
There was something more deliberate and therefore more culpable about the way I hacked my path through culture. I really chose these things. Which is maybe why I felt compelled, at even a couple of years' distance from her, to put up a bit of a defense of the absurd kid dreaming of roaring across the country taking Benzedrine and shouting about angels. She is to me as an eccentric and overbearing aunt from whom I have received a vast inheritance. She is no longer with us, but I must not be an ingrate even so, nor despise the lowbrow means by which she made her fortune.