Category Archives: Literature

Controlled Chaos: The Literary Inspirations of Ian Curtis


From Dostoevsky to Burroughs to pulp sci-fi, Ian Curtis devoured offbeat literature. 

Jon Savage via the Guardian

In March 1980, Joy Division released their third single, featuring the songs “Atmosphere” and “Dead Souls”. Published in a limited edition of 1,578 on an independent French label, Sordide Sentimental, this was no ordinary record. Carrying a “warning” of one word – gesamtkunstwerke – it was, indeed, a total artwork comprising graphics, music, photographs and text, a world unto itself.

On the cover of the fold-out was a painting by neoclassical artist Jean-François Jamoul, picturing a robed hermit looking out over mountain tops, the valleys obscured by clouds. Inside was a collage of a lone figure descending into the depths of the earth, with Anton Corbijn’s photo of Joy Division under strip lighting in Lancaster Gate station. And then there was the text.

In the essay entitled “Licht und Blindheit” (light and blindness), Jean-Pierre Turmel positioned himself as far away from rock crit cliché as possible. Citing Pascal, Heinrich von Kleist and Georges Bataille among others, he went in deep in his attempt to explain the effect that Joy Division had on him:

“At the heart of daily punishment and sufferings, in the very wheels of encroaching mediocrity, are found both the keys and the doors to inner worlds.”

Received with rapture by Joy Division fans – not least because the two songs were among the best the group ever recorded – the Sordide Sentimental single was an early recognition of the fanaticism, if not religiosity, that would surround the group. Ian Curtis loved the package, but then he above all knew how words and books worked as a threshold into other dimensions.

In the same way that Jim Morrison referenced Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night in the Doors’ moody masterpiece, “End of the Night”, Curtis dropped hints in song titles such as “Dead Souls”, “Colony” and “Atrocity Exhibition” that he had read writers as diverse as Gogol, Kafka and Ballard, while the lyrics reflected, in mood and approach, his interest in romantic and science-fiction literature.

This is not to legitimise Curtis’s lyrics as literature, but to make the point that, in the 60s and 70s, pop culture acted as a clearing house for information that was occult in the widest sense: esoteric, degraded, unpopular, underneath the literary radar. And there was a whole subculture and a market that supported these endeavours to go underground, to step outside.

Joy Division continue to inspire new generations of listeners, but they were very much a product of time and place. Ian Curtis was an avid reader who became a driven writer “trying to find a clue, trying to find a way to get out”. In the north-west of England in the mid to late 70s, he found the materials that he needed for his escape, only to discover that – as was evident from much of his reading – escape was impossible.

Like the Doors and the Fall, Joy Division were named after a book. Their inspiration was not Huxley or Camus, however, but a piece of Holocaust exploitation. The House of Dolls by Ka-Tzetnik (real name Yehiel Feiner) told of the areas in concentration camps in which women were forced into sex slavery: not the Labour Division but the Joy Division. By 1978, when the group adopted their name, the novel/memoir had sold millions of copies in paperback.

The early to mid-70s was a golden age of paperback publishing, both high and low. Apart from Penguin, with its vigorous science-fiction line that included authors such as Philip K Dick, Olaf Stapledon and JG Ballard, there were Picador, Pan, Mayflower, Paladin – the last with a wide-ranging list that included Jeff Nuttall and Timothy Leary. Selling for 50p and upwards (when an LP cost £3.25), these books were readily available to young minds.

In the Manchester area, there were several outlets for this jumble of esoterica, some left over from the oppositional hippie days. The historian CP Lee remembers shops such as Paper-chase and the leftwing Grassroots, while Paul Morley worked at the Bookshop in Stockport: “Tolkien was a huge seller, war books too, lots of experimental science fiction, as well as the Mills & Boon romances and tucked-away soft porn that kept things ticking over.”

Then there were the shops run by David Britton and Mike Butterworth: House on the Borderland, Orbit in Shudehill and Bookchain in Peter Street, just down the road from the site of the Peterloo massacre. As Butterworth recalls, all three “were modelled on two London bookshops of the period, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed in Berwick Street, Soho – which sold comics, sci-fi, drug-related stuff, posters, etc – and a chain called Popular Books”.

With his friend Steven Morris, Ian Curtis regularly visited House on the Borderland. Butterworth remembers them as “disparate, alienated young men attracted to like-minded souls. They wanted something offbeat and off the beaten track, and the shop supplied this. They probably saw it as a beacon in the rather bleak Manchester of the early 70s.”

“They came in every couple of weeks, sometimes more often. Ian bought second-hand copies of New Worlds, the great 60s literary magazine edited by Michael Moorcock, which was promoting Burroughs and Ballard. My friendship with Ian started around 1979: we talked Burroughs, Burroughs, Burroughs. At the bookshops he would have been exposed to an extremely wide range of eclectic and weird writers and music.”

Dropping out of school at 17, Curtis was an autodidact who took his cues from the pop culture of the time. In 1974, David Bowie was interviewed with William Burroughs in Rolling Stone. The actual chat was fairly non-eventful, but it made the link explicit – especially when Bowie was seen fiddling with cut-ups in Alan Yentob’s “Cracked Actor” documentary – and Burroughs would cast a major shadow over British punk and post-punk.

In the mid-70s, there was a sense – reinforced by the vacant, derelict state of Britain’s inner cities – that the bomb had already dropped. With its casual brutality and black humour, Burroughs’s accelerated prose – what his biographer Ted Morgan called his “nuclear style” – matched this apocalyptic mood. The lack of conventional narrative in his books plunged the reader into a maelstrom of malevolent, unseen forces and ever-present, unidentified dangers.

Joy Division rarely did interviews. In January 1980, however, they gave an audience to the young writer and singer Alan Hempsall. This was to be the only time that Curtis talked about his reading, and he mentioned Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys as two of his favourite books. The group had recently encountered Burroughs at their Plan K show in October 1979, though when Curtis approached the author to get a free copy of The Third Mind, he was rebuffed.

Curtis began writing in earnest during 1977, when he and his wife Deborah moved into their Barton Street home. In her memoir, Touching from a Distance, Deborah Curtis remembers that “most nights Ian would go into the blue room and shut the door behind him to write, interrupted only by cups of coffee handed through the swirls of Marlboro smoke. I didn’t mind the situation: we regarded it as a project, something that had to be done.”

His first attempts showed a writer struggling to establish a style. One of Joy Division’s most effective early recordings, “No Love Lost”, contains a spoken word section that lifts a complete paragraph from The House of Dolls. Songs such as “Novelty”, “Leaders of Men” and “Warsaw” were barely digested regurgitations of their sources: lumpy screeds of frustration, failure, and anger with militaristic and totalitarian overtones.

Like the group, Curtis worked hard to improve. His keynote early song for Joy Division, “Shadowplay”, explored for the first time the territory that he would make his own. Like a Burroughs cut-up, the lyrics shifted from a direct address to a description of a situation – often horrific or unsettling: “the assassins all grouped in four lines” – sealed with a first-person confession of guilt or helplessness: “I did everything I wanted to / I let them use you, for their own ends.”

By then, Curtis was exploring more than pulp horror. Deborah remembers him reading “Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse and JG Ballard. Photomontages of the Nazi Period was a book of anti-Nazi posters by John Heartfield, which documented graphically the spread of Hitler’s ideals. Crash by JG Ballard combined sex with the suffering of car accident victims.” Another favourite was Ballard’s 1975 High-Rise.

Deborah recently recalled that Ian never read these books in her presence, which she felt was “an indication to me that he considered them part of his work. They were important to him. It wasn’t something he did as relaxation or for pleasure. He was studying/working. Too important to try and concentrate on with someone else in the room. It wasn’t something he did as relaxation or for pleasure. His books would be on the floor next to his drafts.”

At Joy Division rehearsals, Curtis would act as the director, spotting riffs and working with Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris to turn them into songs. Once the music was completed, he would dig into the plastic bag in which he kept his notebooks and begin fitting words to music. As Sumner remembers in the film documentary Joy Division, “he would just pull some words out and start singing them, so it was pretty quick”.

Between 1978 and 1980, the lyrics poured out of him, enough for three albums and more. Curtis did not seek conventional narratives, but strived instead to create a situation in which the emotion came from the response of the narrator. As the lines shifted from the universal to the personal, the “I” was often trapped, as in a Greek tragedy, by forces outside his control: “We’re living by your rules, that’s what we’ve been shown” (“Candidate”).

Like many young men, Curtis oscillated between feelings of omnipotence and abjection, and his lyrics reflected this. The sense of a hero struggling – perhaps in vain – within a labyrinthine system is a common theme in Kafka, Gogol and Burroughs, among others. It’s not hard to see a thematic line from Kafka’s Control Officials (The Castle) to Burroughs’s theories of Control, or from the fatalism of the 19th-century Russians to postwar science fiction.

Ballard’s exquisite techno-barbarism offered a twist. Science fiction offers an alternative present, and Curtis used this language on Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures. Songs such as “Interzone” place desperate and forgotten youth, like the Wild Boys, in empty Mancunian landscapes. At the same time, there was a preoccupation with religious imagery and martyrdom, combined with a Nietzschean aloofness.

The words were, of course, only part of the package. Joy Division were a total artwork, right down to the record sleeves, the clothes and their posters. Live, they were brutal and impossibly intense: as a front man, Curtis placed himself completely in the moment with a persona that, intentionally or not, approximated the faraway stare of a seer: “I’ve travelled far and wide through many different times” (“Wilderness”).

It’s not hard to see how Curtis would have identified with the civil servant hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, with his nihilistic disdain for the human “ant hill”: “We are born dead”. The problem of rock music is the idea of authenticity, the requirement that a front man should act out, if not embody, lyrics and mood. As Joy Division took off, he became trapped by his own script: “This life isn’t mine” (“Something Must Break”).

In the pivotal “Atrocity Exhibition”, Curtis wrote: “for entertainment they see his body twist / Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist'”. Though it refers to Ballard’s novella, the mood of the song is much more like Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. When asked about this by Alan Hempsall in January 1980, Curtis replied that he’d written the song long before he’d read the book: “I just saw this title and thought that it fitted with the ideas of the lyrics.”

It seems clear that Curtis used his books as mood generators. At the same time, his wife thought “the whole thing was culminating in an unhealthy obsession with mental and physical pain”. As she recently wrote: “I think that reading those books must have really nurtured his ‘sad’ side.”

As 1979 turned into 1980, Curtis’s mood grew darker. “Dead Souls” was a slice of HP Lovecraft horror, old and cold, that made the hairs stand up on your neck. Songs from the Closer period, such as “Isolation” and “Passover” – “this is the crisis I knew had to come” – showed the lyrical balance tipping into outright, anguished confessional. With its key words “will” and “again”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” spoke of recurring emotional torment.

Nobody picked up the obvious signs. Tony Wilson, who is interviewed in the documentary, claimed he thought they were “just art”. Curtis’s final lyric, “In a Lonely Place”, echoes Jean-Pierre Turmel’s description of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa: “the marble, ghastly pale, set the body in a specific moment, between flesh and crystal, just before the tangible disappears and the soul flies away”.

Curtis’s great lyrical achievement was to capture the underlying reality of a society in turmoil, and to make it both universal and personal. Distilled emotion is the essence of pop music and, just as Joy Division are perfectly poised between white light and dark despair, so Curtis’s lyrics oscillate between hopelessness and the possibility, if not need, for human connection. At bottom is the fear of losing the ability to feel.

Nearly 30 years after his death, Joy Division have gone mass market: their music crops up in Coronation Street, or as a soundtrack for BBC sports coverage. I’m pleased the songs are receiving their due, but it’s also worth restating that the band, and its lyricist, were products of a particular time in cultural history, when there was an urge to read a certain sort of highbrow literature, and when intelligence was not a dirty word.

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A Trip from Here to There: An Essay on Brion Gysin

“Everything was alive like me on this earth, everything was breathing.” — Brion Gysin


The Hotel La Residence in Lyon was the place where we gathered for the retrospective of Brion Gysin’s art works at the Institut d’Art Contemporain in Villeurbanne. The show had transferred from the New Museum in New York and yet this was much more than a second run — it was absolutely appropriate that this important exhibition should take place in France, where Gysin had lived for so many years, and where he produced some of his greatest work. He had moved through the street life and high society of Paris, and had seen the city through all its changes, from his arrival in 1934, aged eighteen, with 15 dollars a month to live on, to his death in his apartment opposite the Beaubourg in 1986, at the age of seventy. There had been some wonderful, and also pretty terrible, times spent in Tangier and London, and many a “trip from here to there,” but there would always be Paris. For many years he felt ignored and dismissed by the art world, and this wasn’t so much because Paris was no longer the center of the art world, but because he was a progenitor post-modernist of the trans avant-garde, a traveller and internationalist, and an esotericist. He would always regard Tangier as his spiritual home, but he was, he said, a “terminal tourist.” The markets and institutions of the art world had shifted definitively to New York and London after the Second World War, but Gysin was always just passing through those cities where a profitable art career could have been developed. Instead, he was “unlocatable,” often when it most mattered, not leading “a painter’s life” at all, but pursuing other, magical interests. Because of the Beat Hotel years and his Paris exhibitions and his final years resident there after a definitive return in the mid 1970s, his life and work are inextricably tied to that city, that country. This show testified to both Gysin’s Francophile sympathies and to his love of North Africa, but it also validated his cultural and geographic marginality — a marginality now seen to be inextricably tied to his originality. The fated denizen of the Boho Zone had the vantage point of the visionary outsider.


Dream Machine at Gysin Exhibit

Our group included friends of Brion Gysin — Terry Wilson, Udo Breger, Philippe Baumont — and fellow admirers of his art, including Axel Heil, Stephen Vassilakos, Jacki Ledevehat and myself. The manifestations were starting — the young people, enraged and engaged, walked down rue Victor Hugo past our hotel to the Place, followed by cops in their body armour, with their visored helmets and shields and batons — the confrontations were inevitable, Minutes To Go indeed. . . Within days an image of the riot-torn, tear-gassed streets of Lyon would appear on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, that essential touchstone of American ex-pats the world over — and source of key material for the cut-ups of Minutes To Go. On French TV we would see the same clips endlessly recycled to hammer home the idea not of nationwide protests and injustice but of “troublemakers” and “mindless thugs” — well, I’ve come across a few thugs in my time, but I never saw one with “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” painted on her face. Petrol stations were out of fuel or would very soon run out — “Workers cannot be deprived of gasoline,” said Sarkozy, as protesters brought traffic to a halt at energy “chokepoints,” truck drivers staged “escargot” protests on the motorways, railways were disrupted and the garbage piled up… 1,423 protesters, mostly young, would be arrested by the 21st… Could this be May in October? Clearly, Gysin’s retrospective was opening under “Riot Conditions”… At the vernissage, Gysin’s friend Catherine Thieck, who curated the 1987 Galerie de France show “Brion Gysin: Calligraphies, Permutations, Cut Ups,” said to Terry Wilson, “Isn’t it just like Brion to bring us all together in the suburbs of Lyon?” In fact, there was a direct correlation between those young people protesting against state legislation and the crowd of young people who appeared at the Gysin opening. Ramuntcho Matta, Francois Lagarde, Francois de Palaminy, Rosine Buhler, Terry and Udo and Philippe and many more were at the vernissage, and Gysin would have loved it that his old friends and admirers were joined by those young people, eager to see his work. Louise Landes Levi wrote to me, “Lyon scene sounds incredible, almost as if Brion made it happen, as a similar riot, the young & strong, broke out the last time I saw him read, at Beaubourg, he was attached to all kinds of tubes under his white robe, I panicked, feared for his life but I think he enjoyed himself, I am sure he was there for the riots.” We were just passing through, the riots and jams hardly touched us, but the media message was inescapable, and that ambience of things going askew, pressure building, we could feel it, and there was, too, a Gysin current coming through… We were talking about Gysin’s lack of recognition, how he was always himself passing through different cities and time zones, and a Bowie track suddenly blasted out from a boutique, an echo of the ambience of Brion Gysin’s later Paris nights, when he was hanging out at The Palace with Keith Richards and Iggy Pop and other rock-star art cognoscenti — it was the perfectly ironically titled, “A New Career In A New Town…” Already we were picking up on the “Gysin Level” as Burroughs dubbed it, and as Terry always refers to it, and it really felt like dub music, the reshaping and remixing of the existing recordings with echo, reverb, and delay, the rhythm and alliteration of Gysin’s work coming through from other sources, an audio and visual remix following us around Lyon and up to Paris and through the city streets, manifestations of a different order, jumping out of speakers and sprayed on city walls, breaking through TV monitors and leaking through newspaper formats and old photographs, and mirror apparitions and psychic photography — associations, connections, tracks we were helpless but to follow, it would have been foolish to do otherwise, a whole series of currents of meanings, political, personal, aesthetic, which we would track in the days following the show. We’d come to see the show, to look at the Gysins — and our trajectories did more than intersect, they radiated outwards and connected in ways which seemed premonitory and fateful, literally manifesting as the manifestations built in the streets and those riot clips were incessantly, ideologically recycled and reiterated. We would cut that media material up, intervening and disrupting the image flow, rewriting the script. In derives around Paris in the days and nights following the show’s opening we passed significant Gysin locations, and caught visual echoes of his calligraffiti on the walls, the past suddenly glimpsed, appearing in a new guise. Gysin’s work permeated the experience — but it was something more than art. I realized I was reviewing an exhibition, but also tracking the effects of an exhibition — something hardly ever acknowledged by art critics or reviewers. We were picking up on the show’s afterglow, tracing the psychic connections which Gysin’s work is all about… After all, that “immense revolutionary demonstration” which Gysin saw in his own painting, and those “street barriers” he discovered in his calligraphy, we’d seen them, too, in the retrospective at Villeurbanne, and now here they were “for real” on the streets of French cities and as a running script on continual replay through the 24 hour media (we switched the sound off, we knew what those commentators and politicians were saying). A couple of days after the Gysin show, strolling down the Rue du Bac in Paris, Terry said, “Well, the manifestations haven’t ruffled any feathers around here.” The next second a very small man walked past us in boots and knee socks and a Tyrolean hat with two one-foot high feathers sticking up in the air from his hat band. He patted Bouddha on the head and disappeared. Such Gysinian manifestations had occurred in New York, too, with the sudden miraculous appearance, shortly before the show, of the missing eighth painting in Gysin’s beautiful 1961 series of calligraphic acrylics, whereabouts previously unknown. And Laura Hoptman, curator of the retrospective, told Terry that a very impressive, regal figure, dressed entirely in white, walked back and forth in front of the New Museum in the days before the show, as if safeguarding proceedings, his very presence casting a mysterious protective radiance. He did not speak to anyone and he didn’t enter the museum. “Brion’s representative, clearly,” Terry said. 


Udo Breger, Ramuntcho Matta, and Alice Marquaille at Gysin Exhibit

In the last twenty years there have been fine shows of Gysin’s work, in particular at the October Gallery in London, which supported his work while he was alive and has continued to do so, but this retrospective provided an unparalleled overview, despite certain curious omissions such as the renowned multiple-image Marrakesh paintings of the late 1950s, and his big late picture Calligraffiti of Fire. The absence of the Marrakesh pictures was particularly baffling and unfortunate since these have always exerted a powerful fascination on viewers and their conjuration of shifting, elusive images is one of Gysin’s most original achievements. For those who had never seen the originals, it was a real loss. Still, the exhibition was an opportunity to get a sense of the work over forty-five years, from the 1940s decalcomanias to the final photo-grids of the 1970s. Several Third Mind scrapbooks, made with Burroughs, were exhibited, along with notebooks and related written and published material, in cabinets — the scrapbook collage pages were reminders that Gysin was not principally a collage artist at all, and that in fact he had great reservations about making pictures with that technique. Collage was a tool for Burroughs and Gysin in their systems collaborations, but it wasn’t until the Beaubourg and photo-grid series of the 1970s that Gysin employed it whole-heartedly in his art. Rather, the show revealed Gysin as a draughtsman and painter whose work conjures evanescent, transient optical and psychic experiences, a vision which ranges from transcendent detachment to possessed, splenetic attack. His art uses his calligraphic touch and layered processes to communicate the scattering, shattering, and dematerialization of perceptual phenomena and the flux of states of consciousness — seeking the creation of exemplary embodiments of transcendent moments and their dispersal, an art ofapprehension in every sense. They are not “illustrations” of drug experiences, surreal depictions or visually contrived approximations of the hallucinatory. The pictures create continually shifting, flickering apparitional fields, both suggesting and stimulating changing states of consciousness — optical phenomena inseperable from psychic conjuration. Those tiny dancing figures of light, the “little people” of psilocybin and kif can be seen in gestural flashes and twists, implosions and radiations of color. The skyscraper becomes a grid, the stroke of paint a flower pistil, and back again, the painted image emerging and disappearing through a ghosting figuration which pulsates through rhythmic brush strokes, while the speed, time intervals, internal rhythms and velocity peaks of Gysin’s calligraphy are breathtaking. It’s the work of a “psychic assassin,” for sure, pushing extreme states including the alienation effect of the disembodied and mechanistic, but beneficent, too — seductive, poignant and tender. The show included a room where Gysin’s “Expanded Cinema” of scratched color slides was projected, another with several spinning Dreamachines, and Balch’s film Towers Open Fire was also shown, so that Gysin’s paintings were placed, as they should be, in relation to his multimedia work. People rushed in to sit around the Dreamachines, and they knew exactly what to do. It was entrancing.


Gysin Exhibit

The exhibition “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine” was curated by Laura Hoptman who has also written an essay, “Disappearing Act: The Art of Brion Gysin,” for the accompanying book, which she has edited, Brion Gysin: Dream Machine. The book, like the show in its New York incarnation, attempts to situate Gysin’s work in contemporary art practice as well as in 20th century art history — though Hoptman is aware that Gysin’s art was a psychic, magical exploration that does not fit convenient formal and stylistic categories. The title of the retrospective and the book separates “Dreamachine” back into its two component parts, though that conjoining was more than a marketing ploy, a brand name for a device — it was itself part of Gysin’s hybridization technique. The beginning of one word is found in the end of another and in their seamless coming together a profound idea is given perfect verbal form — the merging of two apparently contradictory states of being which are linked by their bypassing of human control. The autonomous device operating outside the human body and beyond human control passes into the dream as psychic event which takes over the helpless sleeper. This is the meaning of the Dreamachine as Soft Machine — the giving up of control, becoming an agency for the transmission of images, the Dreamachine triggering the hidden genetic permutations of the psyche. Hoptman distinguishes Gysin’s work from the calligraphic and the grid artists of his time — he could not be categorized, he did not belong to those schools to which his own work bore only a surface resemblance. He was playing a game with certain stylistic and formal tendencies, including action painting and Tachisme and kinetic art — whilst subverting these, doing something quite different and working undercover. The book includes homages by today’s artists who have been directly influenced by aspects of Gysin’s diverse, complex oeuvre, and it is significant that Gysin’s subterranean, heretical influence now seems more vital than so many of his contemporaries. This retrospective and the accompanying book are admirable attempts to re-evaluate Gysin’s work, and to recontextualize it in regard to certain contemporary art practices, and this has been long overdue. Even so, there is the still misunderstood, largely uninvestigated work of Gysin and Burroughs’ Third Mind. A number of the scrapbooks were presented in display cases at the exhibition, and examples of the grid collages are reproduced in the book, but the Third Mind cannot be accessed or understood through this kind of presentation alone. Gysin and Burroughs’ project was determinedly ant-art, anti-literature, and also anti-collage-as-art, and those who seek out the political, technological, esoteric Third Mind techniques and strategies will do so in ways which bypass, necessarily, the obfuscation and misdirection of cultural analysis and specifically artistic readings. The Third Mind is absolutely not reducible to a collage text or artwork — it was very much more than that, and even at the textual level, the way the scrapbooks work goes beyond such reductive formalist description. Telepathy, scrying, machine production, drugs, magical invocation, cut-up and other techniques, along with strategies related to photographic illusion must be explored through experimental material practice — which has nothing to do with being shown in a gallery or recorded on film or selling a book, and not only because of the transitory, inchoate and risky nature of the phenomena and processes involved. The idea that Gysin’s artworks from the late 1950s onwards can be separated from his Beat Hotel experiments is unsustainable since their development was reciprocal, entirely enmeshed, and this symbiosis continued after Gysin and Burroughs left the Beat Hotel — the discoveries informed both men’s work for the rest of their lives. At the same time, the artefacts and working documents accrued in the process of Third Mind research may be exhibited, and studied as formats and procedures linked to Gysin’s artworks, and to the texts of both men, while Gysin’s beautiful paintings may themselves be recognized for their originality and their significance in art history, but this kind of critical activity will only take you so far because “theoretical understanding,” in the case of the Third Mind, is a complete contradiction in terms — the process is experiential, it is of the unknown. If this is a problem for criticism, it’s also an opportunity — to explore Gysin’s art by actually engaging with the processes and techniques of the Third Mind which made Gysin’s work possible. Terry Wilson has written about attempts “to neutralize and assimilate a lifetime of psychic power into three-dimensional financial manipulative areas… to neutralize, assimilate, destruct. . .,” and the “contextualization” of Third Mind artefacts as historical manuscripts or artworks by any other name risks losing the essential purpose of Gysin and Burroughs’ work. Their own book, The Third Mind, was not what they had hoped for, the outcome a perfect example of market forces at work, while the original blueprints and “field recordings,” and the teachings passed along to a few, call for further research and action rather than the promulgation of “ideas” or the validation of existing knowledge. Despite the fascination and beauty of certain Third Mind works, they are technical plans, resource materials, spin-offs of a way of thinking and being in the world which cannot be aesthetically or intellectually recuperated. Continue reading

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William Burroughs and Tom Wolfe headline beat literature auction

Vial once containing methadone prescribed to Burroughs and first edition of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test among sale items


An empty vial that once contained methadone prescribed to William Burroughs and a 1968 first edition of Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, signed by 45 stars of the 60s counterculture scene, are being auctioned in San Francisco next week as part of the sale of a unique collection of beat and avant-garde literature and ephemera.

One of the star items of the sale is a 1958 first edition paperback of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, inscribed by Neal Cassady – the real-life inspiration for Kerouac’s drug-fuelled protagonist Dean Moriarty – with the words “Tell it John”. The inscription is a message to Kerouac, and the book is expected to make between $8,000 and $12,000

The list of signatories to the copy of Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his new journalism account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ bus trip across America in 1964, reads like a who’s who of 1960s US counterculture. They include Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the novelist and activist Wendell Berry, who worked alongside Kesey at Stanford University, acid test participant Ken Babbs, and Dan Healy and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. Its sale value is estimated at $7,000 – $10,000.

Counterculture collector and historian Rick Synchef, who is selling off the books and other items, told CollectorsWeekly: “These are my idols. I looked up to these people because they brought something so new to the country.”

The empty vial once belonging to Burroughs has a list price of $300 (£185). The 1950s and 1960s paperbacks, which are being sold separately and together in small lots, include works by Charles Bukowski,Gary Snyder, Burroughs, Raymond Chandler and Allen Ginsberg. Most of the books are signed by the author, and many have additional signatures or inscriptions from others associated with the work.

The sale takes place at PBA Galleries in San Francisco on 10 October, and will be followed by a second auction in January 2014, focusing on books and other materials about drugs. A third sale will follow in May 2014.

By Liz Bury via the Guardian


VIDEO: Specialist Erin Escobar discusses featured items from PBA’s sale featuring Beats, Counterculture & Avant Garde and Literature and Science Fiction from the Collection of Richard Synchef with additions upcoming on October 10th, 2013

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The Search for Edgar Allan Poe’s Secret Poems

Edgar-Allan-Poe_1249986cSometimes, as Edgar Allan Poe mused in “The Purloined Letter,” a secret hides in plain sight. After Poe’s first poetry collection, “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” débuted in 1827—anonymously, and quite sensibly so, as the eighteen-year-old author was on the run from creditors—two of his poems (“The Happiest Day” and “Dreams”) reappeared that autumn in the North American, a short-lived weekly newspaper in Baltimore. They didn’t run with Edgar’s name, though, but under the initials W.H.P.—William Henry Leonard Poe.

Few readers know that Edgar had an older brother. Typically going by the name Henry, he was a poet, like his famous sibling, and a hard-drinking sailor. Orphaned and raised apart, the two reunited in adulthood and roomed together in Baltimore, where Henry staggered from alcoholism into an early death at the age of twenty-four, in 1831. Aside from a 1926 collection (“Poe’s Brother”) issued in a thousand copies, Henry’s slender body of work has never been reprinted, and he remains the most obscure corner of Poe studies.

For more than thirty years, Henry’s initials hid those two poems by Edgar, and it was by sheer luck that their true authorship was uncovered. Without the discovery in 1859 of “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” neither “Dreams” nor “The Happiest Day” would be known today as attributable to Edgar. But why had they run under Henry’s name in the North American? Most likely, Edgar was still hiding from creditors, since he’d vanished altogether by enlisting in the Army under an assumed name—as “Henri,” in fact.

But Henry Poe’s North American work also includes pieces of prose. “Monte Video” is a travel letter about Henry’s experiences as a sailor, but the other three—“The Pirate,” “Recollections,” and “A Fragment”—are fiction. The editors of the 1926 reprint of Henry’s work claimed, on no particular evidence, that he based the maritime drama of “The Pirate” on an early love affair of Edgar’s. More perceptively, they ventured that “some of the sentences seem to indicate that Edgar may have written the tale at least in part.” (It helps that the title character announces himself thus: “I am Edgar Leonard!”) “Recollections,” perhaps tellingly, recounts travelling abroad to find a long-lost brother named Leonard. But these hints were pursued no further by the editors in 1926—and one tale to run in North American, “A Fragment,” was pretty well ignored.

Yet it is strangely familiar. At just five hundred and forty-two words, “A Fragment” is a fevered first-person account by a despairing man about to shoot himself: “Heavens! my hand does tremble—No! tis only the flickering of the lamp. … No more—the pistol—I have loaded it—the balls are new—quite bright—they will soon be in my heart—Incomprehensible death—what art thou? …” Influenced by the suspenseful “Blackwood’s tales” of the day, right down to a ludicrous only-a-dream ending, it’s remarkably similar to the mad, insistent narrators of Edgar’s work.

Bear in mind that “Metzengerstein,” an 1832 Gothic tale of a family feud, is considered Edgar’s first fiction. And yet here, five years earlier—in what is ostensibly Henry’s only stint as a short-story writer—are three pieces worthy of an eighteen-year-old Edgar, and evincing elements of his later work. Edgar was, in fact, trying to start a writing career in 1827: the one account of his teen-age attempt to go it alone in Boston noted that his landlady “had no patience with a boarder who sat up nights writing on paper which he could not afterward sell … He then tried literary work, but failed to obtain employment on any of the large journals.” These three stories might be the remains of that failed effort—or they might indeed be by his older brother. So the puzzle becomes not whether the North American stories are Poe’s first published fiction: they are.

But which Poe?

In a past era, any suspicions about Edgar’s authorship of these pieces would be dutifully wrapped in supporting quotes and biographical context—and short of finding other documentation, that would be the end of it. But as J. K. Rowling discovered recently with the unmasking of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” author attribution is becoming a very different game altogether. “The Professor Who Declared, It’s J.K. Rowling” announced a headline in the aftermath of Rowling’s confession. Patrick Juola is not a lit professor: he teaches computer science at Duquesne University, where he’s developed JGAAP, the Java Graphical Author Attribution Program.The idea behind the software, called stylometry, is an old one: the mathematician Augustus De Morgan proposed in 1851 that authorship might be sussed out through word frequencies, and the early nineteen-sixties saw the use of manual counts to determine authorship of the Federalist Papers—researchers noticed, for instance, that Hamilton used “while” and Madison used “whilst.” Modern stylometrists can deploy programs to seek subtle patterns in how individuals tend to use language—for instance, the recourse to certain chunks of words (“word stems”), as well as clustered “n-grams” of characters, words, and parts of speech. By comparing an unknown text to a group of known texts, the program can then rank the known authors by similarity. “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” for instance, was compared with work by Rowling, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James, and Val McDermid. While Rowling didn’t score No. 1 on every test—McDermid did well on some measures—Rowling had a high rank consistently across different measures. Once confronted, she confessed.

Could it work for Poe, too?

Though JGAAP’s options are bewildering to the newcomer, the basics are simple. You enter the unknown and known texts; then you apply “canonizers” that strip noise like extra spacing and case from the work. Then you choose which language events to look for, and which algorithmic drivers to analyze patterns with. The result is a ranked list, with No. 1 as the closest resemblance to the unknown work. After I prepared a set of texts, I emailed Professor Juola, unsure of which algorithmic drivers to apply. “Probably our best overall analysis method, time-tested and all that, is the Author Centroid Driver,” Professor Juola advised. “You can use it with a lot of different methods and distance functions.”

Any one test isn’t a reliable indication of authorship. But with a likely author, the results across multiple tests start to show a pattern. And with Edgar Allan Poe and six other comparable authors placed in comparison to Henry’s prose works, Juola pointed out, there was a specific set of ranks to look for if Edgar was the likely author: namely, the top three, and particularly the first or second rank. “What you want to see, ideally, is that Edgar comes out as the most likely author every time,” Juola noted. “You won’t see this, but if he comes out as the most likely or second most likely almost every time, it’s still highly likely that it’s him.”

For my analysis of Henry’s collected fiction, I picked as my known texts works by Poe and six contemporaries: “The Last of the Mohicans, ” by James Fenimore Cooper; “Twice-Told Tales,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne; “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon,” by Washington Irving; “The Quaker City,” by George Lippard; “Idiosyncrasies,” by John Neal; “The Wigwam and the Cabin,” by William Gilmore Simms; and Poe’s “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.”To keep the computer from crashing, I used the first ten thousand words of each work—a good sample size. Simple matters of timing meant that some of these authors couldn’t have created Henry Poe’s prose, but no matter: they were, in the parlance of stylometry, my distracters. If Edgar could consistently rank above his peers, then maybe I had my author. After selecting for word occurrences, word stems, and n-grams for parts of speech, characters, and words, I used Juola’s recommendations for a driver (“Centroid”), for functions (“Cosine,” “Histogram,” and “Manhattan”), for a culler (“Most Common Event”), and then clicked the final screen’s button:PROCESS.

For a moment my computer appeared frozen, and my heart sank. Then came my first screen of results. I scrolled down through fifteen different test outcomes: Edgar, Edgar, Edgar, Edgar. It was a shutout: he’d swept all the No. 1 rankings.

To be fair, I hadn’t included Henry in this round. The one prose work that is biographically specific to him, “Monte Video,” is problematic—at only one thousand two hundred and sixty-three words, it’s not an ideal sample. Still, this time I ran the test again with Henry taking over James Fenimore Cooper’s slot. Edgar’s ranks didn’t budge, and Henry’s did not look especially promising: six, six, six, four, five, three, four, two, two, two, two, three, four, three.

So to the extent that his sample size could be trusted, the alleged author of this work was scoring an average rank of 3.86 out of seven—or about what one would expect from a random distracter.

The results were good for Edgar—so good that I became suspicious. Would JGAAP correctly identify a known Edgar Allan Poe story? I tossed “The Pit and Pendulum” in as the unknown text, and sure enough, Edgar’s “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” sample (which did not include the story) came up as the favorite—he had nine out of fifteen possible No. 1 rankings. Remarkably, this also meant that JGAAP had ranked Edgar higher for authoring Henry’s stories than for one of his own.

If Henry’s stories are really Edgar Allan Poe’s, though, then why did they remain unattributed, even after Edgar would have no longer needed to hide his authorship?

That may be the simplest question to answer. 1827 was a turbulent year for Edgar, who even at the best of times could neglect his manuscripts. The 1841 copy of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” exists only because a printer’s apprentice saved it from a wastebasket. (It was stillnearly incinerated on three different occasions in the following decades.) Edgar later resorted to borrowing an old copy of the Southern Literary Messenger to retrieve work for “The Raven and Other Poems”; he also had to borrow his own 1829 volume, “Poems,” from a cousin. Tracking down the North American would hardly have been so simple—it collapsed after just twenty-eight issues. For Poe, finding prose juvenilia from 1827 simply may not have been worth his effort.

But are they his works? I found that Edgar still remained on top when run against an entirely different set of distracters. Assembling everyone into a fifteen-author battle royal still couldn’t dislodge Edgar from his perch—along with Henry and the original seven, there was N. P. Willis, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Robert Montgomery Bird, Lydia Maria Child, Charles Fenno Hoffman, Augustus Longstreet, and John Pendleton Kennedy. But when I changed Edgar’s comparison sample to the next ten-thousand words of “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” his ranking finally got dented. Even so, he remained the top pick in some runs, and among likely authors over all.

So the results are suggestive—but perhaps they are only that. Sample sizes and the choice of texts can be treacherous things. As Juola himself has pointed out, even his results for J. K. Rowling were ultimately resolved by a living author’s confession. “In the event that we were studying a long-dead author,” he mused, “this is the kind of thing that could and would be argued about in the journals for decades.” In the hands of a novice, maybe stylometric software can’t produce certainties, but it can inspire good questions—not just about attribution, but about the subtle currents of language that run even deeper than subject matter or genre.

As I finished my JGAAP session, I had a bit of fun with it: what if I threw Edgar’s “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” into the hopper as the unknown, and then removed him from known authors? In short, which contemporary would JGAAP pick as its likely author if it didn’t know Edgar existed? I clicked, and my eyebrows went up. A dutiful guess of Irving or Hawthorne, it turns out, would be wrong. But then, so was my own guess of George Lippard or John Neal. The work’s overwhelming affinity was with John Pendleton Kennedy, who judged the 1833 story contest that handed Edgar Allan Poe his first big break—and made him a known author at last.


By Paul Collins via the New Yorker


CODEX SERAPHINIANUS: Quite possibly the strangest book in the world



In October Rizzoli will be republishing what is regarded by many to be the strangest book in the world, the Codex Seraphinianus. The Codex is unlike other historically well-known strange books (such as the Voynich Manuscript), in that the author of the book is not only known (Luigi Serafini is his name), he’s still alive. But the book is just so damned strange that it has accumulated a veritable industry of speculation about its meaning, deeper origins, and whether the language in which it is written actually has any syntax or not. Serafini has said relatively little about it himself over the years, and denies that the script has any meaning, but no one really believes that, including me.

My fascination with the Codex Seraphinianus dates back to the early 1980s when it was published and when I was working in a Waldenbooks store on Montague Street in Brooklyn, known to other stores as “The Zoo” because of the cast of characters who worked there. Some of the customers recognized me as a kindred spirit so they’d come in, shoot the shit, and we’d discuss weird books and other stuff until Bob, my manager, gave me a “look” or told me to work the register. Bob was cool actually, and didn’t mind at all that I’d come in to work totally baked because I not only had tunnel vision at the register and was super-accurate, I’d get bored and order up books for the Sci-Fi, Philosophy and Religion sections and my books would sell pretty quickly. Phillip K Dick? Stanislaw Lem? Lama Anagarika Govinda? Kierkegaard? You bet I stocked ‘em. I kept all their books on the shelves. (Though I wonder what Bob would have said had the $40,000 Tibetan Tanjur I ordered as a gag through Waldenbooks HQ actually shown up.)

One day one of “my” customers came in and told me about the Codex Seraphinianus:Man, it’s like a hundred dollars and its got drawings of trucks with human heads, skeletons getting fitted for new bodies, weird animals that don’t exist and shit, like from a whole ‘nother universe. It’s not written in English or any other language but the dude who wrote it made up his own language…I never saw anything like it… Back in the pre-WWW days you couldn’t just whip open your phone and command it to give you a rare book: You had to brave odd looks in rare bookstore after bookstore by people who had never heard of The Codex Seraphinianus and who highly suspected you had either hallucinated the existence of such a book or had heard of the book from someone else who had hallucinated it.

Recently, however, I was finally in a place where my finances matched the book’s availability, so I got myself one, only finding out shortly thereafter that Rizzoli was putting out a new edition in October. This kinda explained the panicky bargain price I got for an unopened copy of the 1993 French edition. But let me say, that after all these years, the book really does live up to its reputation: The drawings are in turn hilarious, disturbing, bizarre and, sometimes, just flat-out incomprehensible, but all of them are annotated in Serafini’s script. Even in my relatively abstemious state of mind these days I can spend hours “reading” it. One typical image is shown above and, in the video below, you see a bunch of pages out of the early chapters.

Over the years a whole cult has grown up on the Internet devoted to the Codex Seraphinianus. For instance, this group discovered that the numbering system is base 21, and this guy discovered certain grammatical rules governing the script, and even created a sort of transliterator you can use. This lady claims to have hallucinated herself into the world of the Codex, even prior to having heard of it. No one, however, has yet cracked the Codex and translated it. As for the author, he is very much alive (and apparently real, as you will read below) but continues to deny that the script has any meaning. (His website doesn’t, unfortunately, doesn’t have a heck of a lot of info.) In the forthcoming edition, however, Serafini now states that a stray white cat that joined him while he created the Codex in Rome in the 1970s was actually the real author, telepathically guiding Serafini as he drew and “wrote.” Recently, I traded email questions about the new edition and about Serafini himself with Charles Miers, Rizzoli’s chief publishing honcho, who himself is a long-term fan of the Codex:

Dangerous Minds: So how did this new edition of Codex Seraphinianus come about? Was it something Rizzoli initiated or did the author Luigi Serafini initiate contact?

Charles Miers: Rizzoli and Serafini have been working together for years in Italy on several other successful projects on Serafini’s art such as the recent Storie Naturaliinspired by Jules Renard, in Italian, still in print,

DM: I think I heard that there’s new content and even drawings in this edition that haven’t appeared previously. Is that true? What’s new about it?

CM:Yes that’s true, the first 2 chapters are made with completely new drawings, also new is the 22 pages “Decodex” insert in which the author explains in various languages when and how the Codexcame to life and the crucial help he had in this from a white cat.

DM: Do you expect this book to sell like hotcakes? Yeah, it’s kinda pricey but I finally bought my own copy of the 1993 version several months ago, and I’m only slightly sad to find out I could have had a newer one for about a third of what I paid.

CM: We expect to sell out fairly quickly of our first print runs of both the trade and deluxe limited edition. Serafini’s literary following is very impressive.

DM: So have you spoken to Luigi Serafini yourself? Does he even speak English? For that matter is he actually real or just a pseudonym of someone else?

CM: Serafini is absolutely a real person and he speaks very good English.

DM: Any interesting stories you or your Italian Rizzoli counterparts have heard about Serafini? Though I don’t think he’s a recluse or anything, his website doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of information. The story is that he has a whole warehouse of ceramics down in Umbria or somewhere, but I haven’t heard much more than that about him.

CM:Serafini has very interesting homes both in Rome and in Milan and had, until a few years ago, a ceramic laboratory near Deruta, in Umbria,  which is no longer operating.

DM: Have you spent any quality time with the Codex yourself? Any thoughts on the language therein? Serafini has supposedly said that it means nothing, but there do appear to be fairly clear clues that at least some of it has some meaning. For instance, the numbering system is base 21.

CM: The book has been in my personal library since its original publication and is a favored treasure of mine for both its bookmaking production and nuances. The page numeration of the “Codex” does follow a math system based on the number 21: having said that, Serafini particularly denies any numerological influence in his work. But this is something which has already sparked speculation for many bloggers.

DM: Any discussions about bringing out something new by Serafini in the future?

CM: Absolutely yes, Rizzoli Italy is talking with Serafini about a couple of ambitious projects, which are inspired by the popular ancient Italian literature.

Well, I’d bet that’s a Dangerous Minds exclusive! We may see an additional title to two from Serafini in the future! And I must admit to wanting to get my mitts on that new edition with the new illustrations, but as I’m rapidly running out of room for more books I guess I’ll have to pass… for now.

Here’s part one of a symphony devoted to the Codex Seraphinianus, with great images of the early part of the book:

Posted by Em via Dangerous Minds
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David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

After spending five months at the V&A Museum in London, the wildly successful David Bowie Is retrospective has moved to Toronto. Running at the Art Gallery of Ontario from September 25 to November 27, the exhibition is again curated by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh.

Speaking before the Canadian opening, Marsh drew special attention to the fact that the man born David Robert Jones is a “voracious reader”, who is known to read up to “a book a day”. He also revealed a list of Bowie’s 100 favourite books.

The list is a fascinating insight into the intellectual life of one of Britain’s enduring pop icons, revealing as it does a broad fascination with a great number of diverse themes and genres. If there was ever any doubt as to the seriousness of the man behind Ziggy Stardust and the Berlin Trilogy, then it has surely been dispelled by his selections.

Fiction plays an important part in the chronological list, with authors ranging from the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, through George Orwell and Anthony Burgess, up to contemporary American novelists such as Michael Chabon and Junot Díaz.

Psychology, theatre, history, autobiography, travel writing, comics and poetry all feature, too, as well as several books on music. Among these are a book of essays by the avant-garde composer, John Cage, and Nowhere To Run, Gerri Hirshey’s story of soul music.

Unsurprisingly for an artist whose recording career started in 1967, the sixties is the best represented decade in terms of numbers. The Englishman’s interest in the counterculture of that decade is evidenced by books such as Hubert Selby Junior’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Anatole Broyard’s memoir about life in Greenwich Village.

Bowie’s most recent album, The Next Day, was his first in 10 years and debuted at number one in the British album charts. It has been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize and is currently the joint-favourite for the award.


David Bowie’s Top 100 Must Read Books:

The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz, 2007

The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007

Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002

The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997

A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997

The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995

The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994

Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993

Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990

David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988

Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986

Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985

Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984

Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984

Money, Martin Amis, 1984

White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984

Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984

The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980

Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980

Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980

Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980

Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91

Viz (magazine) 1979 –

The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979

Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978

In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976

Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975

Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975

Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974

Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972

In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971

Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971

The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970

The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968

Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967

Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967

Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr., 1966

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965

City of Night, John Rechy, 1965

Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964

Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963

The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962

Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961

Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –

On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961

Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961

Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961

The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960

All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd, 1960

Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959

The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958

On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957

The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957

Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957

A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956

The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

The Street, Ann Petry, 1946

Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945

Article by Matt Lewis via the Telegraph

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40 Hidden Paintings on the Edges of Vintage Books

fore-edge painting is a technique of painting on the edges of the pages of a book. The artwork can only be seen when the pages are fanned, as seen in the animation below. When the book is closed, you don’t see the image because it is hidden by the gilding (i.e., the gold leaf applied to the edges of the page).

fore-edge painting fanning animated gif

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, fore-edge paintings first arose during the European Middle Ages but came to prominence during the mid-17th century to the late 19th century. Anne C. Bromer for the Boston Public Library writes, “Most fore-edge painters working for binding firms did not sign their work, which explains why it is difficult to pinpoint and date the hidden paintings.”

Thanks to the generous gifts from Anne and David Bromer and Albert H. Wiggin, the Boston Public Library holds one of the finest collections of fore-edge paintings in the United States. Most of the collection has been put online for the world to enjoy and features more than 200 high-resolution images; complete with additional videos, articles and information.

The University of Iowa and Colossal recently featured a few fore-edge paintings with animated gifs that can also be seen below.


1. The causes, appearances, and effects of the
seasonal decay and decomposition of nature, 1837 by Robert Mudie

fore-edge paintings gif

fore-edge paintings gif

2. The Holy Bible
Split fore-edge painting

fore edge painting

3. Letters of Lady Rachel Russell, 1801
by J. Mawman


4. Analysis of the Game of Chess, 1790
by François-André Danican Philidor


5. Characteristics of women, moral, political, and historical, v.2 1833
by Anna Jameson
Painting of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage


6. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, v.1 1838
by Henry Lord Brougham
A view of Philadelphia showing the Delaware


7. Jeanne d’Arc
Author Unknown
The People Of Orleans Greet Joan Of Arc


8. The rod and the gun, 1841
by James Wilson


9. Poems by the late William Cowper, Esq., v.2 1820
by William Cowper


10. The speeches of the right honorable William Pitt, v.2 1808
by William Pitt
George Washington and Benjamin Franklin


11. The causes, appearances, and effects of the
seasonal decay and decomposition of nature
, 1837 by Robert Mudie

hidden artworks on edges of books

hidden artworks on edges of books

12. The poetical works of Thomas Moore, 1865
by Thomas Moore
View Of Enniscorthy, England


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Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize Winning Irish Poet Dies at 74

'Privately, he was almost shy, always thoughtful' … Seamus Heaney in 2010.

Seamus Heaney’s books were events in our lives

Colm Toibin via the Guardian

Two years ago I invited Seamus Heaney to read at the Kilkenny arts festival in Ireland. The venue was St Canice’s Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches in Ireland. It was here almost 40 years earlier that, as a young poet, he had met Robert Lowell, who had become a friend and a mentor. Heaney admired Lowell’s utter dedication to his craft, his ability to change, his absolute belief in the importance of poetry. When I suggested that Dennis O’Driscoll, who had done a book of interviews with Heaney, should introduce him on stage, Seamus said he would like that, but he would prefer it if Dennis would read as well. Dennis, he said, had done enough introducing; since he was also a poet, he should get equal billing. It was typical of Seamus’s generosity.

That evening, I suggested to him that he should do no signing of books after the reading, but go and have a drink with the theatre director Peter Brook, who was in Kilkenny and wanted to meet him. As we left by a side door and walked away from the church, he sighed and said that all his life after readings when everyone else was free to walk out into the world, he would spent an hour or more signing books and meeting people. He was the most tactful and careful and scrupulous of men. He used a deep-rooted conscientiousness in his work, but it also came across every time you met him. He had a way of holding back, watching every word, weighing the moment. In his public readings he had a real command; privately, he was almost shy, always thoughtful.

“I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.”

-North from Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. Continue reading

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