‘The sense of trepidation that sometimes accompanies the unknown’ – Read Hard: Five Years of Great Writing from The Believer edited by Ed Park & Heidi Julavits

The Believer, if you don’t know (and in the great spirit of the late Troy McClure), comes from the same people who bring you McSweeneys (which may or may not prejudice you against it – I know there are people in the world for whom McSweeneys is some great totem of where American literature went wrong – I’m not one of those people). The Believer is in a sense the nonfiction equivalent of McSweeneys (even though, yes, okay, McSweeneys is a literary journal that reinvents itself with each edition while The Believer is a magazine). When the magazine began (in March 2003), Heidi Julavits writes in the introduction to Read Hard, the idea was to ‘rejuvenate the way fiction, and books generally, are written about’.  Their only rule when they kicked things off was that each article would be at least 4,000 words. Articles of 4,000 words, though (Heidi continues) reveal that books, ‘which have come to be treated as a solitary and somewhat hermetically self-referencing… pastime, are in fact natural introductions to all corners of the culture’. And so The Believer became a magazine ‘that considered any topic books considered as their province – which is to say, everything.’

Read Hard, then, is an anthology of articles culled from the magazine’s back list and features such luminaries as Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte & William T Vollman. Before I read the book, I had a reservation. I thought The Believer was full of articles in which famous (or up and coming) writers filled you in on some obscurity, some hidden treasure (be it another writer or a film or a band or whatever) deemed cool enough to unearth. I thought I would find lots of articles about people I’d never heard of doing things I had no interest in (which sounds shallow, I know, but I’m being honest with you). Certainly, there are articles in here about people I have never heard of – such as Scott Eden’s piece, ‘Whirl’ about Ben Thomas, an outspoken ‘newsman’ who ran an unofficial newspaper called the Evening Whirl in St Louis for over half a century – great writing quickly negates any nervousness you might have about whether or not the piece would be of interest. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. In the first instance, I read the articles either by the people I knew or about people / things I was interested in – Jonathan Lethem (on Nathanael West), Rick Moody (on Christian rock band, Danielson Famile), Ben Ehrenreich (on the writer Brian Evanson), Sam Lipsyte (on Michel Houellebecq) – before moving on to articles about things that I wasn’t unfamiliar with (so, for example, I read Ed Park’s article, ‘Like Cormac McCarthy But Funny’, about Charles Portis because Portis’ book True Grit was one of my dad’s favourite movies).

It was only when I started to read articles about subjects that were wholly unfamiliar to me, however, that Read Hard really came alive. Joe Hagan’s ‘Transit Byzantium’, for instance, an article about Bill Fox, formerly lead singer of a small US indie band called The Mice, then a folkie troubadour and then – nothing. Reclusive hermit. Joe goes in search of Bill, finds his brother, learns a little bit about him, comes home. As an article, not much actually ‘happens’ – but it’s riveting all the same. I didn’t get more than halfway through before I had to stop and go buy Bill Fox’s album Transit Byzantium and have a wee listen. I don’t know about you but I like being turned on to new stuff. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should also say that I bought a second hand copy of Brian Evanson’s Dark Matter through Amazon as a result of Ben Ehrenreich’s article and a copy of Norwood off eBay as a result of Ed Park’s article). The sense of trepidation that sometimes accompanies the unknown was gradually replaced by a sort of earthy joy, an admixture of ‘how much there is to know’ and ‘how much there is I don’t know’. Over half of the 21 articles in Read Hard introduced me to something I was as yet either wholly or partially unfamiliar with (ranging from the world of D&D in Paul La Farge’s ‘Destroy All Monsters’ to Michelle Tea’s long weekend at a transsexual music festival in ‘Transmissions from Camp Trans’) in a way that had me rattling through pages like a hungry diner.

Not everything works (stray pieces on Manny Farber, Lester Bangs and Stevie Smith fail to ignite, a sort of druggy memoir by the editor of The Rumpus I could take or leave) but the majority of articles do – and in an anthology comprised of 21 different voices that is a big ask. The only real complaint is that the collection has not been more specifically re-edited for the UK market (a great article on The Fall a wee while back could’ve happily replaced the Manny Farber, for instance). But this is hair splitting of the tallest order. All told, Read Hard is a great collection of articles on all manner of subjects. If you’re anything like me, this will send you off in a host of directions that you may not otherwise have travelled in. Arguably the worst thing about the book is that you can guarantee you’ll be out of pocket when you’re done, drawing up lists for stuff that you’ve just got to check out…

Any Cop?: All the recommendation you’ll need to treat yourself to a full subscription…

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