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Posts Tagged ‘the eighties’

Books by Covers, Et Cetera

October 14, 2015 | by

For a kid, it’s better than your name in lights: your name in appliqué.

Back when the world was new and there weren’t three Sadies in every kindergarten class, I worshipped the Lillian Vernon catalog. My love for the mail-order tome was purely theoretical; although it arrived in the mailbox regularly, we never ordered anything. But the pages filled with personalized things—pink-dotted linens, pencil cases, dolls, beanbag chairs, Christmas stockings—seemed wonderful to a child who had never found a keychain with her name on it. I remember in the late eighties the name Madison often appeared in the pictures, rendered in a round, admirably legible embroidered font. 

That was the primary lure for me, and I’m sure for others, too. But the catalog opened my eyes to a whole realm of adult luxury beyond monograms. Hammocks. Seasonal wreaths made of artificial flowers. Eyeshades. The world seemed so full of things, both exciting and overwhelming. One item made a particular impression on me: a book cover for paperbacks. Was it needlepoint? Or am I conflating it with the hymnals at my grandmother’s church? Either way, I know the copy advertised its ability to “hide that trashy romance novel!” Read More »

The Fuzz that Was, and Other News

November 6, 2014 | by

January 17, 1986: Officer Gary Capuano. Photo: William Karl Valentine, via Slate

  • A certain Gen-X urtext is now twenty years old and all the more interesting for it: “I discovered that Reality Bites, weirdly, provides interesting commentary about the economy. In fact, it’s a film about money. To be a little more specific, the movie explores a deep, complicated ambivalence about work, freedom, capitalist impulses, and authenticity … Their story looks a lot less romantic from the vantage point of middle age. Generation X has turned out to be not so much indifferent to money as screwed by it.”
  • In praise of finishing every book you start: “The most common defense of book-dropping I hear is that because there are more good books than any one person could possibly read, it’s stupid to waste time on a dull or otherwise unsatisfactory novel. That argument makes sense if the novel is utter trash—if it’s so bad that the reader needn’t respect the author and would possibly get dumber by going forward. But if a novel starts well and descends into trash, then it seems to me that it’s worth continuing to see if it gets better, or to see where the writer went wrong.”
  • Your bladder is more than just an organ. It affects your stance on one of the most knotted, hotly debated questions in philosophical history. “Even healthy subjects have less belief in free will when they’re subtly reminded of their own physical limitations. [Two scientists] had people respond to a battery of questions not just about free will, but also about their current corporal desires. The desires that negatively correlated most strongly to belief in freedom were: a) the desire to urinate, b) the desire to sleep, and c) the desire to have sex.”
  • In 1985—years before Cops had proven that America loves to watch its enforcers in action—a photography major at Arizona State went on spring break and began to photograph the Pasadena Police Department. Now he’s published the photos: “Welcome to hell.”
  • Total number of kisses in Jane Austen novels: fourteen. Total number of speeches in Shakespeare: 34,895. And other statistics that won’t do much to improve your enjoyment of literature.


Ways of Witnessing

November 5, 2014 | by

Geoff Dyer and John Berger, 1984.


Marxism Today, December 1984.

I read Berger’s Ways of Seeing and then started to read more and more of him, and I found it all very stimulating and exciting. He was doing something that I hadn’t come across before in English writing—bridging the gap between criticism and fiction and so on. All with that level of political engagement that was absolutely de rigueur back in the early eighties. He was my favorite writer, and I interviewed him for Marxism Today. —Geoff Dyer, the Art of Nonfiction No. 6, 2013

John Berger is eighty-eight today—I’d been curious for a while about his interview with Geoff Dyer, so I finally did the obvious thing and Googled it. Lo and behold: the December 1984 issue of Marxism Today has been digitally archived by, with the Dyer-Berger exchange complete and unabridged. The interview, “Ways of Witnessing,” sits among such fare as “Hopes, Dreams & Dirty Nappies” (“What can utopias do for mothers and mothers do for utopias?”) and a column called “Video Viewpoint” (“Perhaps 1984 will be remembered in some small footnote as the year in which video tapes started to live up to the claims several people, mostly video producers to be sure, had been making… ”). The cover story: “Santa’s Dramatic Intervention.”

At the time, Berger was soon to release And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, but he doesn’t discuss the new book much. Instead—as you might anticipate given the venue—he and Dyer talk a lot of leftist shop: “My reading tended to be more anarchist than Marxist-Kropotkin and all the anarchist classics,” Berger says. And on why he never became a card-carrying Communist: “I had reservations about the party line in relation to the arts.”

Dyer would’ve been twenty-six when this interview came out; there’s not a lot of his voice here, and certainly none of his humor comes through. But you can sense, maybe only because of his later comments, his eagerness to please Berger, or at least to convey the scope of his intellect. Toward its midpoint, the conversation turns to romanticism, and here it’s somewhat less arid: Read More »


A Conversation About Our Secret Life in the Movies

November 3, 2014 | by


A detail from the cover of Our Secret Life in the Movies.

When the writers Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree lived together in San Francisco, they set out to watch every film in the Criterion Collection. Their new book, Our Secret Life in the Movies, is a coauthored mash note to cinema classics from Andrei Tarkovsky to Michael Mann: a novel in fragments, vacillating between fiction and autobiography, with more than thirty pairs of stories inspired by the films they watched together. Part collage and part homage, Secret Life follows two boys as they come of age in Reagan-era America, where the video store is the locus of the imagination and the fear of a nuclear winter looms large in the collective conscious.

McGriff and Tyree sat down together to discuss their impetus for the project, the enigma of writing about moving images, and their influences in literature and film alike.

J. M. Tyree: I’m trying to remember how we got the idea for Our Secret Life in the Movies.

Michael McGriff: We were roommates in San Francisco, both teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford, and I somehow convinced you that it would be a good idea to watch the entire Criterion Collection that year.

JMT: We were living in that wonderful place near Mission Dolores, a block away from where Alfred Hitchcock created the fictional grave of Carlotta Valdes in Vertigo. The Criterion project was a real Y-chromosome thing, wasn’t it? We were watching two or three movies a day, eating a lot of pizza, drinking a lot of sambuca. I think our book evolved naturally from the feeling that movies and life seep together out there in the fog.

MM: We started writing these pairs of stories. For each movie that fascinated us, we’d both write one story. A double take on the film. We decided to leave our names off the individual stories and let the book have a life all its own.

JMT: Then the stories started connecting and linking up and merging and growing and taking over—cue The Blob. Why did you want to write a book about movies?

MM: I’ve always gone to film as my primary source of inspiration. Tarkovsky and Bergman taught me how to be a poet just as much as reading Tranströmer and Neruda. Read More »


Trim Size

October 14, 2014 | by


An illustration from Bundesbuch von Magenau (Book of the Covenant of Magenau), 1790.

One of the many things that dates my childhood firmly to the eighties and early nineties is the ubiquity of large reference books in it. Reference books, big ones, figure in most of my memories; I guess they were easy to find at tag sales. At any given moment, you could find me poring over The Great TV Sitcom Book, The Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies, Best Movie Quotes, or The Big Broadway Fake Book, which is in fact probably still in use for auditions, since it contains only sheet music. (I read this only in moments of desperation.) However, it should be said that lines were drawn: someone once gave my family one of those dedicated Great American Bathroom Books, and my mother found it disgusting and threw it away immediately.

For a few years, this sort of tome—eighties excess between two covers—must have had imprints in every major publishing house of the era. There was a distinctive look to the volumes, which were probably intended as gifts or coffee-table items, but had their own low shelf at our house. Monumental title adjectives—great, big, ultimate, definitive—were desirable. The font had to be assertive. It was also a good idea to have lots of the content listed on the jacket, a taste of the great knowledge contained therein. Obviously they had to be physically large, as unwieldy as possible—although I carried them from room to room. It wasn’t just me, either. My friends liked them, too, as I remember, but this may be a comment on the quality of entertainment on offer at my playdates. Read More »

You Belong to the City

August 18, 2014 | by


A still from 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember.

1986 Mets: A Year to Remember is quite possibly the most amazing video yearbook for any professional sports team … ever.” That’s a comment from someone named the Wright Stache, who’s done God’s work by putting most of said video yearbook on Vimeo. But it could be anyone who grew up a Mets fan. There’s the series itself, of course—Game Six, Buckner, Jesse Orosco on the mound—but anyone with an ESPN subscription and a memory can tell you about that. A Year to Remember—known in our house simply as “The Mets Video”—is something different. 

“I watched that video,” said a friend of mine recently. “I don’t really get what’s so great about it.” I didn’t even know how to respond to this. Is the Mets video tied up for me with my brother and my childhood and past glories and the pain of defeat and the entire nature of youth, life, and maybe death? Obviously. But it’s also pretty obvious that it’s just objectively awesome. 

It’s an official Major League Baseball video; I remember that it came in a blue plastic case. Why we had it, I don’t know. I guess it was just what you did in the eighties. Because we weren’t the only ones; a bunch of my friends also owned it, and we can all recite the narration and replicate the “routine double play” from the play-offs and, of course, do a hotfoot in a pinch, as demonstrated by Roger McDowell and Howard Johnson. Indeed, the Mets video occupies a place of honor in a certain varietal of NYC psyche: for those of us who were really young in 1986, that long-ago triumph was symbolized by the video. And scored by Duran Duran. Read More »