On Reading, Thinking, and Stephanie Barber’s Night MovesBy Adam Robinson
February 17, 2013
Lou Reed said that when he released his noise album Metal Machine Music in 1975 (which, according to Rolling Stone, sounded like “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator”), he wanted it to come out on RCA’s classical label, Red Seal. He didn’t want fans of the Velvet Underground to buy it unwittingly, because MMM is essentially an hour of feedbacking amps. As it was, people returned to the record stores in droves, thinking that they had received defective products.
With the small press that I run, Publishing Genius, I’m releasing a slim book called Night Moves that I thought could benefit from a similar caveat emptor. The book, written by Stephanie Barber, is not what readers traditionally expect books to be, so I wondered if we should put together some sort of heady introduction. See, Night Moves is a transcription of the YouTube comments for Bob Seger’s song of the same name.
That’s it. Buy a copy and you’ll get a lovingly designed paperback (bedecked with paintings by Ellen Phillips) that begins and ends with comments from the Internet. So I thought a note would justify the cover price. If Stephanie Barber is getting authorial credit, shouldn’t she actually author something?
What’s more, Stephanie understands the song and the concept so well, on so many levels, and speaks so interestingly about it, that I wanted her to show off a little. In fact she does, in a pseudo Book Club Guide, here. Right away she kills the idea of an intro, saying it’d be “insulting and programmatic. In an ideal world, there will be a broad array of reasons why people might be interested in a book like this. I’d rather not push them into my notions so quickly.”
In a recent essay about another Publishing Genius book, Rachel B. Glaser’s Pee On Water, in the Water~Stone Review, Mary Cappello referred to PGP’s genres as “fiction, poetry, microfiction, and my favorite category: ‘other’.” I like that she recognizes the need for that last category. “Other” is my favorite literary genre, too. This is what the French call “belles-lettres,” beautiful words.
When we released Joseph Young’s Easter Rabbit in 2009, we challenged readers to plow through it in one sitting; there are only a few more than 3,000 words in that book, but most people who tried it failed. It’s too damn lovely. Andy Devine’sWORDS purports to include a 90,000 word novel in its 100 pages, but also it’s an alphabetized treatise on writing. Sasquatch Stories by Mike Topp is not “sasquatch” in stature, but it invites a grandiosity of thought—and lots of laughs, since it’s essentially a book of jokes.
Night Moves, our latest book, dovetails nicely with these other title: all of them are conceptual, but none of them are merely conceptual.
In 2003, Kenneth Goldsmith released Day, transcribing a day’s content from the New York Times in its entirety, a book that Publishers Weekly calls “a full-frontal act of appropriation.” His book Sports is a transcript of the radio broadcast of a baseball game. He’s done this a bunch in other books too, like Weather and Traffic, the content of which you can probably surmise. And, basically, surmising is all you have to do for Goldsmith; he says he has a “thinkership” as opposed to a “readership.” (Tip: The Awl posted a great interview with Goldsmith on Wednesday.)
Barber’s book doesn’t work that way, though. While it too is a serious act of appropriation, her book is meant to be read. Mike Topp has a line that goes, “Here’s a tip: Don’t read comments on the Internet”—smart advice. But within Night Moves, there is a rich narrative, or set of narratives, or language games being played out by unwitting (and often witless) contestants.
It can be mindboggling if you want it to be. Asking what happened to make human interaction so inane is rich thought fodder, but many of the comments are so pleading, so open and raw and hopeful, that mostly the book is heart wrenching. One guy is using the comments to find a woman named Pam that he’d enjoyed the song with years ago. I told Stephanie after reading it the first time that it made me sick. She said she thought it was beautiful.
Of course, anyone could ignore Mike Topp’s advice and pull up the YouTube video and read the comments there. Might as well. Whether or not reading online is, er, materially different than reading a printed book is still a subject for boring debate. And that too is part of the experience offered by Night Moves. But why make a book that was almost immediately made incomplete by subsequent YouTube comments?
My thinking was that, at $10, it’s the cheapest way to get an instant time capsule. When I asked Stephanie what she thought about the fact that the content also exists for free online, she said something about how the sunset, too, is free every day but people still make paintings of it.
Kenneth Goldsmith called Night Moves “a sad and powerful book of love poems,” which I think characterizes it perfectly. I would think so, since I wrote the line. When I emailed him, Goldsmith told me he’s “doing conceptual blurbs these days” because he’d “like to be as surprised as any other reader to read what he ‘wrote’.” I think that’s smart. I wonder if Stephanie Barber will always be surprised by what she wrote every time she reads Night Moves.
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