We are deeply honoured to kick off our Summer Reading List Survey with cartoonist and writer Dylan Horrocks, creator of one of my favourite graphic novels of all time.
Dylan Horrocks’s Summer Reading List
OK, so my name is Dylan Horrocks, and I wrote and drew the graphic novel Hicksville, which is being reissued in a new edition in 2010 by Drawn & Quarterly, and also the comic books Pickle (Black Eye) and Atlas (Drawn & Quarterly). I’ve also written various things for DC Comics, but at the moment, I’m trying to finish a couple of new books, which I’m serialising online, at hicksvillecomics.com
Y’know, it’s actually winter down here in New Zealand right now, but I tend to read more when it’s rainy and horrible outside anyway. So here’s my 2009 winter reading…
These days, I don’t read many comics, and very few novels. I’m more a non-fiction guy, as a rule. But every now and then, I manage a novel or two, so let’s get those out of the way first:
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami was on my reading pile for ages but I’m very glad I finally picked it up. It read more like a dream than a straight-forward story, which is one reason it slipped past my fiction-allergy and into my subconscious. It’s strangely beautiful, almost meditatively slow, and very haunting. Highly recommended. I’ll probably try some more Murakami – but not straight away (I don’t want to hit my fiction-tolerance limit too quickly).
Paper Towns by John Green. A friend who writes teenage fiction (Anna McKenzie, whose The Sea-Wreck Stranger was one of the few novels I really enjoyed last year) recommended Green’s Looking for Alaska when I saw her last. But the library was out of that, so I tried this instead. I’m glad I did, because it made me laugh out loud numerous times, and also hit some satisfyingly strong emotional chords. My wife reads a lot of teenage fiction, and says it’s partly because it tends to have a moral dimension that’s lacking in a lot of current adult writing. That’s ‘moral’ rather than ‘moralising’ – i.e. it feels as though the author feels a responsibility to take their readers on a journey that’s heartfelt and honest, respecting both their intelligence and their emotions. In contrast to just writing a yarn that will sell and make the author seem cool or smart. I don’t know if that makes much sense to you, but it works for me. By the way, Paper Towns also serves as a nice introduction to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I’ve only ever read bits of before, but which I now want to read properly. Onto the reading pile it goes…
OK, so that’s got the fiction out of the way. What else have I been reading?
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World by David Abram is what I’m currently immersed in. I guess it’s an example of ‘deep green’ philosophy, but I’m not reading it for the polemic so much as Abram’s mind-bending take on how language and perception tie us into the rest of nature in profound ways. If I were looking for a convincing argument, this might not satisfy, but as an extremely lyrical exploration of being and seeing and listening and speaking (and, for that matter, writing), this totally hits the spot. I know I’ll be thinking about this book for the rest of my life. Which is, of course, exactly what I want from a book!
The Mind at Night: the New Science of How and Why We Dream by Andrea Rock provided exactly what I wanted: a wide-ranging introduction to past and current scientific understandings of the process of dreaming. It’s popular science, so it’s readable and anecdotal, but there’s enough solid crunch to fascinate and spark further reading. I quite suddenly got interested in dreams a few months ago, as a different way of looking at how stories work, and after trying a few books on the subject, this is the one I stuck with.
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit. This is one of those books that ostensibly focuses on a small detail of history (Muybridge’s 19th century photography) and uses it as a lens through which to explore all kinds of complex and important things. You’ve probably seen Muybridge’s famous sequential high speed photographs of everything from galloping horses to naked people walking (they are, after all, popular with comics theory wonks), but did you know that the man who funded the series in the first place was the notorious railroad baron Leland Stanford? By weaving Muybridge and Stanford’s stories across the cultural, social and environmental landscapes of the American West, Solnit finds plenty of resonance and insight into the shadowy ghosts of American history, the rise of modern corporate industry (corrupt as it is), the genocidal oppression of Native Americans, and our changing sense of space and time. This last is what will stay with me longest, I think; the extent to which the industrial revolution, railroads, photography and film transformed our relationship to place and the passing of time is one of Solnit’s central themes, and it’s powerful stuff.
American Nerd: the Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent and The Elfish Gene: Dungeons and Dragons and Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe both explore similar territory, and both use autobiography to do it. Nugent, however, is more journalistic in his approach, and at times his book feels like a collection of interesting articles. The best passages, for me anyway, were the intensely personal sections at the beginning and end. Barrowcliffe became a D&D nerd in 1970s England, and his account of the frequently destructive effect this had on his teenage years is compelling and frequently uncomfortable. His writing style occasionally grated with me, but in the end that seemed only appropriate, as the snide defensiveness that sometimes seeped into his narrative voice demonstrated only too well how uncomfortable he still is about the boy he once was. It’s a fascinating book in part because it feels unresolved and unrefined; its flaws are the visible scars of a complex ambivalence seething just below the surface. And as a fellow D&D nerd (who first got into the game just a few years after Barrowcliffe), I found plenty to chortle and cringe about.
Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones and Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson are books which set out to change your mind. Johnson wants to dispel the myth that pop culture is getting worse and dumbing us down – so he already had me pretty much on his side. Even so, there was plenty in there to get me thinking about new ideas, and I especially enjoyed his discussion of video games, and the increasing complexity of modern TV. Jones, on the other hand, had some work to do – he’s trying to persuade
us that violent entertainment is often a very positive thing for kids and young people. I went into this book as someone who felt very uncomfortable with the role of glamorised and eroticised violence in commercial entertainment; not least in comic books, including some of the superhero comics I’d written for DC. But I’ve always found Jones’ non-fiction writing to be intelligent, subtle and nuanced (his ‘Men of Tomorrow’ is one of my favourite accounts of the early American comic book industry, and also one of my favourite books about the rise of modern American capitalism), so I was willing to hear him out. I’m happy to say, it was well worth the read. It’s a very earnest book and sometimes gets a little repetitive, but it’s also very persuasive. By the end of it, Jones had considerably deepened and complicated my thoughts on entertainment violence, instilling in me a new respect for the ways children and teenagers (and, I suppose, all of us) can use that imaginary violence in all kinds of healthy ways. If I had read this before writing for DC, I think I’d have done it very differently. I especially recommend both these books to anyone out there with kids who play first person shooters, enjoy action movies or have a fascination with slasher flicks. Jones’ message is an important one: relax and take a deep breath. And then, without judging or panicking, take the time to find out what your kids actually like about this stuff. You might be pleasantly surprised…
Lastly, I went on one of my semi-regular war and atrocity reading sprees last year, and found some amazing books in the process. Best among them were Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives us Meaning‘ and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Both are impassioned and personal, lyrical and horrifying. And whether you agree with the authors’ conclusions or not, both are extraordinary works of art that can’t help but enrich your understanding of the darkest shadows of the human condition. I can’t recommend them highly enough. Hedges’ book, particularly, has the kind of searing life-changing intensity you will never forget, and I challenge anyone to come away from it unmoved.
OK, I’ll stop there. As you can probably tell, when I’m trying to find something to read, I usually want something that will rock my world and leave permanent impressions on my brain. One of life’s greatest pleasures is feeling your whole sense of self and the world around you changing from page to page; maybe that’s why I so quickly get annoyed with most novels, because so few achieve that. Murakami did, and over the past decade or so War and Peace (Tolstoy), Lolita (Nabokov) and Heart of Darkness (Conrad) have too. But most of my all-time favourite books are non-fiction (Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture: Cold war America and the Disillusioning of a Generation, Dan Baum’s Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, Sallie Tisdale’s Talk Dirty to Me: an Intimate Philosophy of Sex and many more), and more often than not, that’s where I get the greatest pleasure and satisfaction.
Which is kind of weird, given that fiction is what I write…