This was originally published as a guest post on Oh, the Books! and is a long-winded answer to the question “so where did that name Book Punks come from, Nikki?” More so, however, it is about how (and which) books have changed my life.
There are a lot of ways to tell the story, and this version is paved with books. So far I’d say it’s been like a good run at Chutes and Ladders, small frustrating steps, sudden sprints to the top of the board, dramatic falls, and a lot of good company at the gaming table.
Punk rock did not save my life. Maybe it saved yours, maybe it didn’t, but it seems like it’s been pretty key for many of the authors of the books and zines I’ve read. Whereas most of the activists in my current community came to activism through punk rock, I came to activism through books, and from there eventually arrived at punk rock. Some people might say this makes me a geek, but as long as we’re throwing around useless labels, let’s say it makes me a book punk and celebrate.
It started with Ursula Le Guin. I’d read and loved her Earthsea Trilogy when I was 10 or 11, which lead me to more of her books, which led me to The Dispossessed, a story about anarchists who live on the moon and that talks a lot about capitalism and anarchism and the pros and cons of each. I haven’t re-read it since, but at the time it was fascinating, eye-opening, and had passages that left me with that warm magical feeling of having discovered something in black and white on paper that I had felt budding inside of me for years, but had never been conscious of. That feeling that the author had managed to perfectly articulate my very own thoughts, and that I was not alone.
Some people say lauding books that are reflections of yourself is narcissistic. I say its necessary. We need each other’s words (though not just those of people we agree with) to help us figure out how best to articulate our own thoughts. I needed Ursula’s to get me to anarchism, as I’ve needed the words of so many authors since to help me figure out the scramble inside my head. I have always been a person that needed to write—or read—to get to the bottom of my thoughts, to make them concrete.
From The Dispossessed, I jumped into The Alexander Berkman Reader (it was alright) and Living My Life by Emma Goldman (fantastic and inspirational) while maintaining a healthy habit of mind-bending sci fi reading on the side (around the same time I discovered P.K. Dick and become instantly obsessed). Again and again I discovered thoughts and feelings on paper that felt as if they’d been bubbling inside of me for years, unspoken, unsown. Now here were others thinking them, describing them, praising them, and analyzing them. Reading their words helped me to clarify my own thoughts, and slowly I began to speak, the seed that had long lain dormant sprouting up and up, toward the bright light of the sun.
The same year that Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael blew my head to bits (there are probably still pieces of it on the wall behind my bed), I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser whose last chapter so poignantly declared, hey, if what you read here bothers you, then do something, we have to start somewhere and individuals can make a difference. The day I finished that book I stopped eating meat. That was important. Not the fact that I had sworn off meat, but the fact that despite having spent most of my life feeling too small and helpless to change the world’s big bad problems, a book had convinced me in a few paragraphs that I too had leverage power. A book.
For most of my friends it was the lyrics of their favorite punk rock song. For me it was words on a page, words I digested and remade in my own punk-inspired folk lyrics and essays (if all this sounds familiar, I highly recommend checking out New Escapologist) and online rants. What books have done for me has only made me more dedicated to them, and as my obsession grew into something I could no longer contain inside of my head, I started a speculative fiction book nerd site called Book Punks with my librarian buddy Erika Jelinek.
Books are how I came to anarchism, to activism, and to the tip of the anti-civ iceberg. When I started reading Quinn I couldn’t believe that friends of mine had read it without freaking out and/or drastically changing their lives. Or Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, which quickly followed. Despite the fires Quinn and Jensen had lit in my blood, after that year I still landed myself a “chute” instead of a “ladder” and signed myself up for a corporate desk job. There were college loans to be paid off, and I could start two weeks after graduation. What I really wanted to do was travel, but in the end I took the safe route, paid off the loans, and let corporate life gradually destroy all the bits of creativity and spontaneity that college hadn’t already gotten.
Corporate Desk Work Steals Human Soul, ho hum, everybody knows the story and mine isn’t any different, except that after a year I ran screaming, moved to Germany after being offered a job taking care of some rich people’s children, and *fast forward five more years* moved into a squatted caravan community with a group of people I’d want at my back should the world ever get around to an apocalypse. It was a lifestyle choice that allowed me the time to be creative and to pursue the passions that Le Guin had planted so many years before.
There are a dozen different kinds of punks: crust punks, fashion punks, no-future punks, street punks. But I was a book punk. Every day I was changing little things about my life. The seed I had found in my reading that last year of college had sprouted into an enormous vine. It’s still climbing.
Has a book ever radically changed the way you think about the world?