Wes Del Val likes good books, knows interesting people, and asks great questions. These three things come together brilliantly in this new interview series for the Book/Shop Journal. First up is this bookish back-and-forth between Wes and Tosh Berman, a writer who grew up in the epicenter of 1960s SoCal bohemia and who has carved out a sprightly world of his own in the worlds of books and music.
One Great Reader #1: A conversation about books between Wes Del Val and Tosh Berman
The first thing I want to do when I visit someone’s house is look at their books. When flipping through interiors magazines my favorite shots show clearly what’s on the shelves. If watching a video online I’ll routinely stop, rewind, and pause if I see titles I want to get a closer look at—my wife loves when I do this... In short, I firmly believe nothing is more revelatory about a person than what they choose to read and keep on display.
I never use Good Reads, but recently after I finished Tosh Berman’s memoir I went one-by-one through his list of 3000 books in the “Read” section, the 700 in “To-read,” and 600 in “To-purchase” and needless to say I now feel like I’ve been good friends with him for ages. I’ve never seen another person’s book interests so align with my own and I’d gladly take any recommendation from Tosh so will probably continue to regularly check in on his lists. He’s also excellent about sharing what he’s reading, watching, and listening to on his blog, so it's well-worth adding to your rotation: http://tamtambooks-tosh.blogspot.com/.
WDV: What books in your life have you finished and would have gladly started right over right then from the beginning?
TB: I have a podcast show “Book Musik” with Kimley Maretzo and we recently discussed Ian Penman’s collection of essays It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. He’s a British writer who focuses on music, but his writing really enlarges that category. I finished reading it and had the urge to re-read the entire book. His ideas are rich and he really knows how to write about a character, such as Prince, and bring in the artist’s culture as well as the world within its pages.
If you had to send five books to someone who knows nothing of you which best represent who you are, what would they be?
Well, of course, my three books: Tosh, my memoir, Sparks-Tastic, and my book of poems The Plum in Mr Blum’s Pudding. Beyond that, any collected writings by Robert Benchley, Andre Breton’s Nadja and the works of the Japanese writer Osamu Dazai, specifically his short story collection, which is out-of-print, but one can find it on the Internet.
Yes of course your own books, which, thank you for mentioning, and reader, you should get, but three others that aren’t explicitly by or about you?
The other book that made a huge impression on me is Lord Berners’ Collected Tales and Fantasies. A remarkable British upper-class, but highly eccentric writer and composer. And any book by Paul Bowles and the underrated Patricia Highsmith.
Which sequels, or follow-ups in the case of non-fiction, would you like to see?
Duncan Hannah, who is a painter, kept a series of diaries. Twentieth Century Boy documents the 1970s. It is such a magnificent book. I’m looking forward to the publication of his 1980s.
What is out-of-print that would find an audience today if a house like NYRB were to give it its usual reissue treatment and who would you want to write a new foreword for it?
The perfect reissued author for NYRB is Thorne Smith. A humorist writer from the 1930s who wrote the Topper books, which is about a fun-loving ‘ghost’ couple that haunts a conservative and uptight banker. All his novels are magnificent, and they need to be reissued. The late Carolyn See wrote a wonderful introduction to the Topper book, but a writer like Jonathan Ames would do a fantastic introduction. I think Ames shares the same sort of dark humor that runs through both of their writings.
You find yourself at a great party with smart and interesting people. What books do you hope will come up in conversation so you’ll shine? It’s ok, I think it’s a typical fantasy many a deep reader has had since reading is by nature so solitary.
Either Yukio Mishima or Dennis Cooper. Both are unique and wonderful writers. Also, they are very interesting as individuals.
Having likely been at such parties, which books or authors have you ever brought up which generally elicited blank stares?
In the late 80s, while I was in Japan, some Japanese friends at a party asked me who is my favorite Japanese writer—I told them Yukio Mishima. A conversation killer!
Your three favorite publishers of all time?
Grove Press, Exact Change, & NYRB, but if you gave me a fourth, Wakefield Press. All excellent presses.
Who must publish a memoir?
I always felt it was a shame that the actor Robert Mitchum never wrote a memoir. I have the feeling that he would have been a magnificent writer.
What did you read that last made you laugh out loud in delight?
Robert Benchley makes me laugh. The way he conveys the absurdity of “normal” life. Most of his writings come from the 1930s, and I love that New York City style of sophistication of that time and period. Benchley made a huge impression on me as a writer.
Second mention of the 1930s which begs me to ask, what period do you most relish visiting when reading?
I like literature from the 1930s, but also I’m deeply fascinated with London and Paris in its post-war years. Colin Wilson wrote a book called “Adrift in Soho” which is a great snapshot of London boho life in the 1950s. And I’m a big fan of Boris Vian, who wrote an imaginary Paris of the 1950s.
What books are popular and/or selling primarily for their covers, but you have a feeling people aren’t actually reading them?
Any hardcover book that is over 500 pages with quality paper. It becomes a fetish object. About ten years ago I purchased a multi-volume set of Casanova’s memoir The Complete Memoirs of Casanova, The Story of My Life that was published by a university press. What makes it unique is that the binding had a nude painting of a woman, and you needed to obtain the entire set to see the full painting, as it is on your bookshelf. If you missed a volume it would ruin the collection.
What book have you started the most but never finished?
Marcel Proust’s series of novels. I have read Swann’s Way at least three times but never went past that novel. Mostly due to issues that I have to read other books for research or work.
Which contemporary author deserves a classic Paris Review interview?
Raymond Queneau would have been a fascinating interview. By reading his books, I would think he was a great gossip. I least, I hope he was. I would gladly read an interview with Jonathan Ames. Ames is one of my favorite humorists and he is sort of a throw-back to the 1930’s type of literature. Eve Babitz would be an interesting interview.
Yes to Eve, and if there is anyone who could get her today it would probably be them. Once again NYRB (a lot of love for them here…) nailed it with their recent reissues and Lili Anolik’s biography about her was enjoyable as well. I imagine the attention Eve has received over the past five years has made many of her “neglected” contemporaries quite jealous.
You walk into a cool new bookshop, how do you navigate it? Which sections do you make sure not to miss? Which don’t you care about?
I always check out the “regional section.” If they have a good regional section, then usually that means the entire store is good as well.
You’ve just met someone for the first time, what three books, if they’ve read them, would almost automatically guarantee you two would like each other?
I once saw a girl reading Alberto Moravia’s Contempt on the bus. The odd thing is that she was reading a vintage paperback that was a tie-in to the Godard film version of that novel. With Brigitte Bardot on the cover. I have an obsession with the book and the film. That was odd to me. A week later she was reading a memoir by Andrew Loog Oldham Stoned, which is one of my favorite books. Both books are hard to get a hold of, yet I wondered why she was reading these particular books at this specific bus line, and when I’m a fellow traveler. I never approached her because I felt it was a trap of some sort!
This is where you add that the next week she was reading your poetry...
What magazines do you most bemoan are no longer with us?
The original Andy Warhol Interview and a music paper called New York Rocker.
Whose bookshelves make you envious?
More like two bookstores: Alias East Books in Atwater Village and Book Soup in West Hollywood. My previous job was buying books for Book Soup. I wished to take those books back to my home but alas, that didn’t happen.
One of the great gigs in the bookstore world by the way. What would you say was the biggest seller during your years there? And the biggest turnout for a reading?
Funny, what stays in my mind is the week after 9/11, the best selling book at the store was the Zagat Los Angeles Restaurant guide. It’s interesting to note that people needed some sort of normalcy after a tragedy. We may be witnessing something like that now. Beyond that, it was always the book title that was in the news or media, and as for literature, I remember Joan Didion being the consistent seller when I was working at the store. Raymond Chandler as well. Any author that had ties to the Southern California landscape did well. As for readings, they were done on a daily basis. Always a huge turnout for someone like Janet Jackson when she had her book out, but also remember having a huge turnout for Ry Cooder, who is a musician, but also wrote a fantastic short story collection called Los Angeles Stories. That was fun.
I hate that there is no IMDB for editors as I have favorites and wish I could know all that they’ve acquired and worked on. Do you, too? If so, who do you like? And is there any other part of the book process (say an agent, designer, or even printer) which you’d like to be able to search by?
Editors are a very important part of the book-making world. They should get credit, like a producer on a film. Ira Silverberg comes to mind as an excellent editor. Chip Kidd as a book designer, he’s always great.
Who is writing today whose books will still be in print 100 years from now?
I agree, but that’s no surprise. Thank you Tosh!