I'm going to start talking about 9 books, in chunks of 2-3. Today the books are about experimental mental health
I’ve read three distinct packets of books and a monograph, in the last few months, that I will attempt to talk about as packets, and then look at the packets together as a cohort. This is post 1 of 4.
In the first packet, I read Bicycle Day by Brian Blomerth upon the recommendation of neighbor friends (Matt and Nadia) who talk a lot about foraging mushrooms and about good art, and I am not sure after reading this if they are also people who like hallucinogenics but I think it’s funny that these tracts of interests can exist so close to each other without actually touching in subject matter. Like, they could be super straight edge but still be super excited by mushrooms and psychedelic art, because they’re educated like that. I also read within the week of putting down Bicycle Day, How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, which is also about hallucinogenics, and coincidentally arrived at my door the same day as Bicycle Day, even though I ordered the books weeks apart. The last book in this packet is one I’ve only just started: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk (also this should get an award for the best title on earth). This is a book my friend Hannah sent to me after I told her I hadn’t read it yet. It’s a must read, and Hannah was doing me the honor and favor of simplifying my decision to open it by making it impossible to ignore, as mail.
In the second packet, I read the best graphic novel I have read in a really long while: Stone Fruit by Lee Lai. I have nowhere else to go with that statement until I unpack my thoughts in a tidy review. I also started to read the Moomin comics for the first time. I know…it’s vital work to have read as a comics enthusiast and critic so how dare I wait this long. Trust me I understand. And it’s worse, because I’ve consumed so much of the visual merchandise of the Moomins, in Japan as in the US. And can I just say, Lee Lai and Tove Jansson belong together. I can’t think of more complementing books to read in the same breath. Lai x Jansson 4eva.
Lastly, I have difficulty in keeping up with literary trends because the hype falls flat and then I regret listening to everybody and then I spiral in embarrassment around my trust and mistrust of friends and mentors and myself. But I got Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So, after a lot of hyping, and you know…it is actually fucking great. For once the hype is merited. It has even got me converted on the short story as a superior format of narrative. In tandem with Afterparties, I also started reading Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee. Also fucking great, if requiring a heady warning on language (woof the opening chapter was a lot). It’s interesting to candy flip these two books together.
And finally, not a packet as such but a piece: To Be Continued by Christian Marclay. I won’t say anything else about it. My colleague Ryan is about to publish an essay about Marclay on the occasion of a new show, and I can link to that in the near future, but I’ll address it at the end of this series and you’ll see why it matters then.
So let me give you a little analysis of the first packet, which I’ll call: Healthy. I’ve kept you in this newsletter long enough with my introductions, so fear not, this is a quick review, and no indication of how much time I want to spend talking about all of the titles in each of the packets. This particular preamble was longer so I could set the stage. So. Healthy:
Most writing about health isn’t worth parsing at the level of the letter because its instructions are so clear and didactic. Like, just read the damn book (or summary on amazon) yourself, and get the gist. In Change Your Mind, which is a super long, researched and rationalized exegesis of modern mycologues (I’m just making up this word), Pollan argues for an expanded understanding of psychedelic drugs and Schedule I drugs in general. In The Body Keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk argues for the need to create authentic holistic care practices to maintain mental health in the face of trauma. Bicycle Day is a pure visualization of the 48 hour span during which the chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally discovered LSD in his lab at Sandoz Pharmaceutical in Switzerland half a century ago.
All I want to say about these books on mental balance/health, is encapsulated with a phrase Michael Pollan uses with very little context. It’s a phrase that makes me twitch a little every time I see it, but is repeated several times without apology, which I am sort of grateful for, because at least he’s being honest about what it takes to get into this level of expertise and to shepherd new ideas on recovery. Mental health isn’t a privilege but the baseline for the work is embarrassingly high. It borders on irony. You’ll see when I share the phrase he uses. It’s a phrase whose meaning is alluded to in what Van Der Kolk says about how crucial it is for trauma victims to discover or re-discover the power of imagination. His assumption isn’t that we all need to embody the phrase but that the phrase is radically tied to imagination. The phrase Pollan uses, he uses to describe people who are best suited and most appropriate for a study on the benefits of psychotropic drugs. The phrase:
Healthy normals. Healthy normals? Do I know any healthy normals? LOL
More on more books next week.