For lots of us, certain weird and meandering nonfiction books become crucial touchstones. These are the books which don’t, say, teach us about the guy who deciphered Linear B or about the geologic history of the United States, and are instead books about…well, that’s the thing. They’re rarely about specific things, these books. Maybe this isn’t the right way to do this.
The books I’m thinking of include most of Greil Marcus’s work, and most of Michael Ventura‘s work, and much of what Weschler does as well (I’m frustrated with myself for not at present being able to think of a female author to add to that list, but two cups of coffee into a Sunday I’m blank—leave comments and tell me what I’m forgetting [I guess Ehrenreich and Solnit sometimes head this direction, though Ehrenreich's stuff's only 50/50 and she's often beating a hell of a drum, even when she's trying to make a book about communal celebration]). What unites these three writers is that their nonfiction’s fundamentally question driven: all of Michael Ventura’s stuff, for instance, could be filed under What’s America mean? Ditto, to a degree, Marcus’s work, though one could revise that to What’s America sound like? Weschler’s stuff’s harder to parse, but you’d be hard pressed to sit with Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences and not depart the experience with a head buzzing with large questions (maybe Is there some underlying uniformity to certain images we kee creating, a sort of visual order akin to a linguistic order?).
The other big thing about books by Marcus and Ventura and Weschler (and whoever else people say down in the comments) is that their books are never things one really finishes, ever. I’ve read Ventura’s Shadowdancing in the USA and Letters at 3AM dozens of times, and the work in their shifts annually. Read Marcus’s Lipstick Traces or Invisible Republic or The Shape of Things to Come or his co-edited New Literary History of America: these are flexing, strange animals, books that not only don’t offer themselves fully on each read, but books which cannot ultimately divulge everything, because the ideas in them are (and hopefully will for a long time be) malleable and wet. What Marcus wrote about prophetic voices in 2006 will read different now in 2012—it will have to; what Weschler wrote in Everything That Rises will forever be update-able: as we invent or frame new images, some of us will find ourselves tracking back to see what from the past those images rhyme with. Of course, lots of us revisit books, and lots of us get new things from books on each new visit, but this isn’t just that: these are books which are fundamentally prismatic, which refract and reflect as years pass, for everyone. I don’t believe I’m doing a great job articulating the magic of this sort of book, but when you’ve read one, you’ll know (maybe another book to include on that list: Hyde’s Trickster, which has a bit to do with todays infinite book).
I bring these books up simply to set a context for discussing Kevin Young‘s almost insanely great The Grey Album: Music, Shadows, Lies. It’s been well reviewed at several places and it’s had some digs taken at it. All of that is sort of beside the point: the great gift we’re given by Young with this book is that it’s unfinishable mess of a genius song, a passionate call and consideration driven by feel and what reads like instinct.
Young’s The Grey Album (named, of course, after Danger Mouse’s remixing of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album) could, in fact, be considered a sort of companion volume to Marcus’s Lipstick Traces in that in it Young’s ultimately trying to trace a secret history, a cultural narrative that’s established through, well, the old Tribe phrase: Beats, Rhymes & Life. What Young’s trying to articulate—and it’s hard not to find yourself nodding along, feeling the argument twist true through you—is the way black culture defined and created white history in the US, and not just in the overt and simplistic Elvis-stole-his-music-from-______ ways in which black culture defined and created white history in the US. What I mean is that, given that you’re reading this at the blog of a literary journal, you’ve likely had some experience with Langston Hughes’s writing—yet what Young offers of Hughes will confound you: Hughes was, Young claims, “deceptively simple” despite that “like Whitman’s [work], his writing seems to need no explanation,” and it’s not exactly an explanation the reader’s offered starting on page 169, but it’s something.
I realize I’m leaving the specifics of what Young covers pretty untouched, though please know that’s 100% intentional: I believe this Grey Album works best as something like a mystery. By which I mean, simply, that Young’s whipsmart, and if you’ve paid attention, even the merest attention, to the last 30 years of culture, he’ll address something you’ve paid attention to. For real (or at least that’s how it felt to me). Get this book and try it now. If it doesn’t work for you now—if you’re not hearing the song it’s singing, or you’ve yet to find that right key—give it a year, two. I wonder how many years it takes for these books to come true, how many we’ll get in our lives. Young’s Grey Album is an infinite world-bender: be there now.