The City That Was: The Literary Obsession That Ate My Life
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
In the days before social media and online entertainment, people had a lot more time to read books. Books were actually important parts of our amusement agenda, especially if there was no TV in the house, and if you had high standards for what was amusing. We read them and swapped them, and we could afford to buy them, on our part-time salaries, and still pay the rent.
One year at 1907, I asked one of the roommates what he’d like for his birthday. After a few days he said, “I want you to read Proust with me. I’ve tried a bunch of times and just can’t do it, so I think I need a support group.” When I recoiled in horror (having tried and given up three times), he said we should do it as a Cacophony event. “Oh, come on,” he said, “It will be fun.”
So I put a notice in Rough Draft that we were going to do this. The notice, about 500 words, was written in the style of Proust—one long sentence, broken with a single semicolon somewhere in the middle. Among other things, it said “interested parties should buy the Vintage paperback edition”, which you could get for about $15.00 used, so we could all reference page numbers of our favorite quotes. Fifteen dollars is about the current price of a single new paperback that’s 10% as long.
That three-volume mega-read was about 3000 pages of text, plus another thousand pages of chapter summaries, introductions, and guides to the people, places, things, and themes. We told everyone that all they had to do was read ten pages a day, and we’d be done in 11 months. We were stunned when eight people showed up at the first meeting, but maybe that was because we promised to serve booze. In fact, about 40 people did it, joining in after the start date.
A lot more people showed up for our monthly meetings when we started serving absinthe. We made our own, from wormwood (which grows all over town) soaked in Everclear, which you could still buy for ten bucks a bottle, and then mixed half-and-half with Pernod, which has all the other herbs in it. Twenty bucks got you two bottles of dangerous drinking. Twenty bucks these days barely gets you tipsy in a bar.
The experience (the read, not the booze) was life changing. Proust taught me everything I know about how to not screw up a relationship and he made me laugh constantly. I got so completely obsessed that I started a zine called Proust Said That. After the first issue came out, I got a visit from some techie friends. They were working on a project that they thought would be huge, something called The World Wide Web, but they really needed some content. They asked if they could put the zine online. I said, “Sure, why not?”
So Proust Said That became the first magazine online, and I kept turning out issues. Every Proust nut looking him up online found me… and they still find me, because it’s still up there on the Web, preserved by a tech guru I’ve never met.
I was doing a reading for the Cacophony book recently, and I read a piece I’d written about the Marcel Proust Support Group. Afterwards, a woman came up and said she’d found Proust Said That online while struggling to get through a Proust class at NYU, and the zine had made her laugh and understand why Proust was so great.
I tell you about my Proust obsession because it was the start of endless weird stories. There are other things on my agenda here, too. One is to say that reading great books is still cheap (if you go to the library). The second is that books give you a hell of a lot of insight into humanity, the world, and yourself. The third is to plug my idol, Proust. If you want your relationships to work, make sure you do the exact opposite of what his narrator did in The Captive. Really. This link will give you a bleak idea of the book. I thought it was funny, in the blackest possible way. But that’s me.
The image above is the first issue of Proust Said That; photo by me, cover art by Dean Gustafson.