The fifth in our ongoing series of conversations about the reading life by publishing veteran Wes Del Val. In this installment, Wes digs into book conditions, reading positions, and classics better left unread until later in life with London-based fashion journalist Charlie Porter.
One Great Reader No 5: Charlie Porter
I first reached out to Charlie Porter six years ago because I’d been a fan of his fashion and style writing and I thought he had a book in him. Turns out I was correct, but premature—he does indeed have a book in him, one about artists and their clothing, and it’s slated to come out next year from Penguin. With several writing credits for The Guardian, Fantastic Man, British GQ, and Financial Times under his belt there is no one better suited (no pun intended) to handle the task, for Charlie moves with ease and discernment through the circles of fashion, art, and culture and I’d eagerly follow him down any of those paths. Indeed as I said I have been doing so for years and he has introduced me to countless cool new fashion labels and he is friends with important writers and always seems to be getting galleys for the exact books I also want to read—the latter being the only thing on Instagram that can make me envious. I hope such envy strikes me many more times from seeing what Charlie’s reading! - WDV
WDV: What do you regret not reading earlier in your life?
CP: I wish that I’d found my way to anything by James Baldwin, Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran and Faggots by Larry Kramer when I was a kid. My early queer reading was through by British writers, which means it was riven by class. There was Maurice by EM Forster for some good old upper class emotional repression, or The Joe Orton Diaries that are all about the gulf of privilege.
20th century queer American writers worked in different ways. James Baldwin was forensic about class, as he was about race, gender, really about anything human. Holleran and Kramer both cut through class, especially when everyone ended up naked in the bathhouse.
That’s a wish, though, not a regret. I actually think the opposite about what books you read when. I’m now 46, and I’m so happy to be reading so much for the first time. I’m soon heading into the last volume of Proust In Search of Lost Time: my brain couldn’t have taken it when I was younger. I did Don Quixote over the holidays: I know when I was a kid I would have found it torture. I just read Jane Bowles for the first time, I’m now reading Jean Stafford for the first time. I have the pleasure of books by Lynne Tillman ahead of me. I’m getting so much from working my way through Ursula K Le Guin. I also know there are books I read young that were wasted on me. I bought all the William Burroughs books when I was 17, around the time the film of Naked Lunch was released. I read them, but I didn’t really read them. I think my head is just about ready to actually read them now.
Do you listen to music while you read?
I’m easy. I read mostly first and last thing, so no music. During the day, at home, I’m happy if there’s something on. We have no walls in our home, and we’re both pretty good at playing records the other will like: from my husband it’ll be Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Alice Coltrane, Brian Eno, Philip Glass.
If I’m in the library reading for research, I’ll play on headphones one of the same three recordings, over and over: The Well Tempered Clavier by Bach, played by Rosalyn Tureck, or Tureck playing Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, or Pablo Casals playing Bach’s Cello Suites. Each of them lasts for days and they suck me into concentration. On the Tureck recordings, you can sometimes hear her breathing.
Do you care about the condition of your books?
I don’t care to the point that books get shoved in my bag during the day, I take dust jackets off hardcovers and forget where I put them, usually finding them torn up a corner, and they’re shoved on piles all over. But I care about other things: I never turn down corners. I’m gentle with spines. I want them to last my lifetime. They just don’t have to be too tidy.
Can you read anywhere or are there specific spots and situations which are ideal?
I’ve given up pretending I can read anywhere. I used to review fashion shows, and there was a season I took a book, thinking I could read in the minutes between sitting down and the show starting. Yeah right. It was as much a pose as someone turning up on the front row with a new bag.
I’m lanky, so I need to be able to sit or lie pretty straight. Our couch is more of a daybed, long and only with an arm at one end, so I can get all of me on it. The words “curl-up” are lovely but that means next day a bad back.
How did you handle merging your books when you got married?
It’s been pretty easy. Rich doesn’t read fiction, and I was missing out on all the poetry, essays, theory and critical thinking that came with him. It’s been invigorating. We’ve done a couple of bookshelf overhauls to keep the selection lively. Most recently, I realised I was giving prominence to a whole load of books that didn’t mean too much to me now. I read all the Rabbit books by John Updike as an adolescent, and they were still on my shelf as if they had some meaning. They don’t. I love John Cheever, but I’m not so sure I want to be giving mental space right now for his repressed queerness. Most of his books have gone in a cupboard, except for Falconer, obviously.
What are some of your favorite books which have been translated into English?
The last volume of Proust that I’ve been saving up was translated for the Penguin series by our friend Ian Patterson—I’m gagging to read it. The first in the series was translated by Lydia Davis and is jawdropping. A couple of weeks ago, I read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky that had real ooomph. The translations by Margaret Jull Costa of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by Javier Marias are brilliant. Obviously all I want right now is the translation of the new Elena Ferrante.
You and just a few others...
How do you buy your books? Are you a browser or do you generally know exactly what you want?
I’m an eager browser, open to anything but also very decisive. Here in London, I browse in Donlon Books, the Broadway Bookshop, Tenderbooks, the London Review Bookshop. I usually leave with something I didn’t know I was going to buy. Whatever it is, fiction or essays or cookery writing, I’ll open it halfway through and read a couple of lines. If their use of words is alive, I’ll give it a go. If there’s anything obvious or lazy or presumptuous in their choice of words, I put the book down.
Which writers have taught you the most about fashion and style?
Mostly anonymous writers, those who wrote the fashion credits in magazines like The Face. I learned so much from really reading that language closely as an adolescent, like I’d already learned to do from the British fortnightly magazine Smash Hits. And actually, in a way that writing was all about style—how you could get a style of language, a personality, into what otherwise would be arbitrary text.
Jay McInerney’s 1994 piece on Chloe Sevigny in The New Yorker was a big moment for me, not so much for his writing, but the fact that the piece had happened at all—that you could write seriously about a city by writing about individuals with an eye for style.
Recently, our friend Hilton Als told me about Kennedy Fraser, a staff writer on the New Yorker in the 60s, 70s and 80s, who covered fashion. I need to get her book The Fashionable Mind.
Nice to see Kennedy Fraser’s name pop up, I feel like a lot of people aren’t all that aware of her. And it’s remarkable how tied to Chloe that McInerney piece remains all these years later, barely an article can be written about her when it’s not mentioned near the top.
If you could have been at any author’s public reading, who would it be?
There are writers whose readings I’d love to be at now! Lockdown and travel bans makes me think of when writers could come here, like when Chris Kraus read from After Kathy Acker at Donlon Books here in London. I’d love to be at a reading by Wayne Koestenbaum from his new book Figure It Out. I’d love to be at a reading by our friend Olivia Laing from her new essay collection Funny Weather. I’ve never been to a reading or a talk by Maggie Nelson, nor one by Gary Indiana. Humans, alive, now!
Whose writing always makes you laugh with delight?
Three years ago, the night of the vote on whether Britain should leave the EU, I was in Paris, chairing an interview over dinner at the home of Rick Owens. I’m very fond of Rick, one of the sharpest thinkers I know. It was June, and we got to talking about what books to take on holiday that summer. He asked: had I ever read Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols? No!
It is audacious. Nichols bought an English countryside home in the 1920s. The book plots his move to an English village, his gardening, his relationship with the locals. It is hilarious. At the same time, the writing is anarchy. Chapter 3 ends: “Please do not throw down this book just yet. For after a very few more pages you will learn something. I promise you that. If not, you can go and ask the bookseller for your money back.”
I don’t know it either, sounds delightful. Since it’s almost June again and if perchance people can take a holiday this summer I hope some pick this one up. Thanks Charlie!
Photo of Charlie Porter, via davidhigham.co.uk