Books acquired: “Star Light, Star Bright,” Alfred Bester; “The Best of,” “Tunnel Through Time,” Lester del Rey; “The Discomfort Zone,” Jonathan Franzen; “The Best of,” Raymond Z. Gallun; “Twenty Days With Julian & Little Bunny by Papa,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (!); “The Essential Hemingway,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper,” John D. MacDonald; “A Ghost at Noon,” Albert Moravia; “The Brothers of Baker Street,” Michael Robertson
Books read: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert M. Pirsig; “California Dreamin’ Along Route 66,” Joe Sonderman; “On the Road With Bob Dylan,” Larry “Ratso” Sloman; “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style,” Nelson George
Regards, readers! The above mass of “books acquired” can be explained rather simply: I took a vacation at Powell’s City of Books, conveniently located within the city of Portland, which is served by an airport. I bought seven books at Powell’s and its main branch, plus four graphic novels, and in Seattle, my next stop,I picked up another three from visits to five bookstores.
That overshadows the “books read” list, but if you’ll take a second look, you’ll see I finished four books, all nonfiction and all with transportation as a sort of theme, at least in their titles.
Let’s run through them, starting with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974). Have you read this? A reader, who was a motorcycle buff, gave me a copy in late 1997 and wrote in it: “Some alternative reading for the holidays. Perhaps you’ll find ‘some humor’ in it.” Exactly why he put quotes around “some humor” wasn’t clear. Anyway, some 22 holiday seasons later, I packed it in my bag for my San Diego trip and got started on it there.
The experience got off to an auspicious start. At breakfast one morning when I was only around page 25, a fellow diner, probably in his early 60s, saw the cover and told me how much the book had meant to him over the years. He planned to read it again, for the third or fourth time, in an attempt to understand it better.
Outside the restaurant, a man who may have been homeless walked past me dragging a large piece of cardboard. He too looked to be in his early 60s. He saw the cover in my hand and said with a knowing smile, “That’s a classic.”
Alas, over the next three weeks no one remarked upon the book. And it’s a very weird one. I did not find much humor in it.
“We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption” (p. 323) is an unusual message in a book hailed as a countercultural classic. I liked the motorcycle journey and father-son stuff, found the “metaphysics of quality” lectures baffling and rolled my eyes at the philosophy class drama. Your (motorcycle) mileage may vary. It’s a polarizing book, with people either loving it or hating it, and for those who love it, my congratulations.
“California Dreamin’ Along Route 66” (2019) was sent to me by the publisher, Arcadia Books. It’s a nice (B&W) collection of postcards, Caltrans images and recent photos of surviving buildings with capsule histories beneath. One favorite: When a truck slammed into a Victorville diner in 1962, “the cook prepared the driver a sandwich and then shut down the place for repairs.” Downside: The rigid formatting of these Arcadia books can get numbing.
“On the Road With Bob Dylan” (1978) is a book I resisted reading since buying a copy circa 1980, not able to persuade myself to read nearly 500 pages about the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, even if the headliner was my favorite artist. Recently I decided to read it after realizing I couldn’t part with a book I’d owned so much of my life. But since my copy was in near-perfect shape, but wouldn’t be if I read it, I sprung for a beat-up, trade paperback reissue found for $6.
Just as expected, the tour account is self-indulgent, although self-mockingly so. But it was a fun read, and Ratso deserves props for insinuating himself into the tour to the point he was able to quote Dylan’s wife, mother and the headliner himself. Minor note: This “revised edition” didn’t fix typos from the original. Poor Eric Andersen, still remembered here as Anderson.
“The Hippest Trip in America” (2014) traces how “Soul Train” began and how it evolved. I watched the show in its 1970s heyday, marveling at the glimpses of black life. My hometown apparently had no black people at all. While the book has fun anecdotes, a dozen or so dancer profiles is too many, and the shortage of photos is a drawback. That many of the interviews came from a then-current VH1 documentary rather than from original reporting is disappointing. So the book is a bit superficial, coming off as more of a prose tie-in to the movie than a standalone product.
So, my favorite book is the one on Dylan, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend any of them, especially for people not already interested in the topics. The only one I disliked, though, was “Zen.”
As noted, “Zen” and “Route 66” arrived as gifts, nearly 22 years apart. “On the Road” was originally bought at, probably, a B. Dalton in 1980; the edition I read came from LA’s Last Bookstore a few weeks ago. And “Hippest Trip” was bought used at Claremont’s Rhino Records a few weeks ago as well.
How was your July, readers? Did you read books or simply maintain motorcycles or go California dreamin’? Let us know in the comments.