This week's installment of One Great Reader features W. David Marx, an American writer living in Japan whose work focuses on culture and style. Books, bookstores, fashion, Tokyo, dead professors, and even The Monkees make an appearance in this weeks conversation with Wes Del Val. Enjoy!
OGR No 8: W. David Marx
I first met W. David Marx on the phone about six years ago when he called to talk about doing a follow-up to a book called Take Ivy, a much-sought-after Japanese reference detailing the finer points of 1960s Ivy League style. I had discovered it in 2009 and the publisher I then worked for released the first English-language edition. David and I spoke about his proposal to write the backstory of how the book originally came to be, but once I found out he had been living in Japan for over a decade, spoke fluent Japanese, and had extensive interest and knowledge of classic American style and who in Japan celebrated it, I planted the seed with David that he had a much bigger and more important story in him. Lo and behold he did. He did a perfectly fine thing by taking the idea to an agent, who then got him a lot more money (never fault a writer for trying to make a living...) with a bigger publisher than we were, and he produced the excellent Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. There are very few people who could have done the required amount of research and interviewing in Japanese and then combine it with his personal, long-standing attraction to the topic to create such an original, intelligent, readable book. It'll be read for years to come and I predict will stay the authoritative word on the subject.
Originally from Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Florida, David has now been living in Tokyo for over 17 years and recently moved into a beautiful split-level house with his wife and two kids. He's a former editor of the Tokyo–New York street culture magazine Tokion and his articles have appeared in GQ, Harper's, The Fader, and Nylon. What's next for David? When I asked if he'd like to be part of the OGR series, he related: "I'm working on a new book (due next year) on how the fundamental human desire for status is what makes the thing called 'culture'. It's trying to explain how fashion, subcultures, media, art, work, etc." Another perfect subject for him to explore and I can't wait to read it. -WDV
WDV: Which writers today impress you with their good taste in what they choose to write about?
WDM: At the moment, I’m writing a new book about why things are stylish, and now that I’ve deconstructed the idea of “good taste” in my heart, I find it hard to be as charmed by choice of topic alone. That being said, I am always impressed with the music critic/historian, Simon Reynolds, who extracts a lot of major cultural insight from very cool topics. Retromania, Energy Flash, and Rip it Up and Start Again are invaluable cultural histories that explore the birth of new musical genres and conventions.
Tell me about a writer you like who is also very stylish and with whom you think most readers here won’t be familiar.
Nik Cohn wrote about a book called Today There Are No Gentleman in the early 1970s about the explosion of youth fashion in Sixties London. It’s extremely out of print, and can go for $900 when copies pop up online. I had never even heard of it until I finished Ametora, but when I finally got my hands on an illicit scanned version, it was so similar in format to my book that I worried my unconscious had somehow stolen his narrative techniques. There are other good cultural histories of the British Sixties, but Today There are No Gentleman provides the penetrating insight and snobbery only possible in cultural histories where the author has lived through the actual events.
I ended up writing the preface to the Japanese version of Today There Are No Gentleman that should be out later this year.
Such a lovely tying up of loose strings.
I’m not able to get the book back in print in the U.S. but at least I could help with Japan first...
What’s a book you found in a used bookstore or online which you couldn’t purchase fast enough because it was so underpriced?
On the way home from the train station to my house in Tokyo, I pass an excellent used bookstore and can never resist going inside. Every few weeks, they receive huge bulk shipments of what I’m guessing are the full libraries of dead Japanese professors. After they comb through the piles for rare books, they drop whatever they deem valueless onto the $1 bargain racks, and I probably buy 3-5 books out of those bargain racks every month. I’ve found some favorites that way, like Ralph Leighton’s Tuva or Bust. I also ended up buying an entire library of linguistics and semiotics texts out on those racks, including some critical titles such as Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics and Rudi Keller’s A Theory of Linguistic Signs.
It’s amazing how exciting it still remains to walk away from a store with a book purchased for just a dollar. And yes, you’re probably right about them coming from professors...
Do you read differently living in Japan than you did while living in America?
When I lived in New York, I just read whatever I was interested in at the moment that was available at the public library. I’ve been suffering in Tokyo ever since I left grad school, because I no longer have lending privileges at an English-language library. So I tend to scour the city’s great second-hand bookstores and end up reading whatever I stumble upon. This serendipity has been quite useful, and I’ve found a lot of great writers I’d never heard of before.
In 2008, I realized that I hadn’t read the “great novels” and was always gravitating towards post-war fiction, so I embarked on a project to read the great books of the 20th century in chronological order, starting with Sister Carrie in 1900. I’ve dipped in and out of this reading list over the years, but I’ve read about 100 books this way and am now up to the mid-1950s. I just finished Yukio Mishima’s The Golden Pavilion. Next up would be Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant (1957).
Admire your adherence to the concept! It certainly would allow for a fairly historically-accurate perspective on how trends and styles unfolded. I’m curious whose list of great books you’re using since there are multiple.
I brought together as many of those lists as I could find, looked at Nobel Prize winner lists, and added a few idiosyncratic choices of things I had always wanted to read. I listed everything out chronologically, and for some authors, decided to only read one representative work (e.g. “Sister Carrie” but not “An American Tragedy”). I also looked at the Wikipedia pages of books published by year to see what I was missing. Over time I make additions. Often that means going back and reading something out of order. I’m reading Hesse’s Journey to the East right now, for example.
Back to buying books in Tokyo, what’s your general method for getting your hands on new English-language books?
A particular set of bookstores in Jimbocho, Amazon, some local bookstores…and a few secret methods.
How protective are you of your books, for example do you wrap the covers, keep them out of direct sunlight, would you never actually put a coffee table book on a coffee table, etc?
I love owning books, but to me, they’re foremost vehicles for ideas. I read books. I’m not precious about them. For many of the ancient paperbacks I buy, they’re destroyed by the time I finish. I have a few rare/nice Japanese magazines I keep in plastic—like the Made in U.S.A. catalogs from the 1970s—but those are an exception. I keep a few art books in their original boxes, and it’s frustrating to not see the graphics of their spine on my shelves.
What do you do with books you no longer want to keep?
There used to be some English used book stores in Tokyo that would let you do trade-ins. So I would stuff a huge backpack-full of unneeded books and come back with a new haul. Most of them closed, unfortunately, leaving me no good way to get rid of things. I had to recently build extra shelving in the basement for additional storage.
Ugh, that is unfortunate. The closing of the stores, not that you have space for more shelves.
I noticed recently that there are a few books I traded away that I would like at the moment, and this further justifies my pack-rat mentality.
A cool new hotel opens in Tokyo and they ask you to select three books which will always be in each guest’s room. What do you choose?
Edward Seidensticker’s Tokyo from Edo to Showa 1867-1989—an authoritative narrative history of the city.
William Klein’s Tokyo (1961)—a great photo book, showing the weirder, grittier side of the post-war period.
Junya Miyashita’s Japanese Signboard Architecture Illustrated (2019)—an exploration of Tokyo’s “signboard architecture,” which is the name for the pre-war style of two-story buildings very common in the older neighborhoods. These buildings are easy to ignore, but once you are aware of them, it opens your eyes to seeing Tokyo as more than just Shinto shrines and skyscrapers.
What book were you told to read by someone older whom you admired and that it would change your life and it indeed did change your life?
In college I wanted to “study” Japanese youth culture, but it was unclear how you’d do that or even if it was possible. A professor told me to read Merry White’s The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America (1993), which was the only academic book on the topic. The book not only gave me specific insights on the subject matter but also the confidence to see Japanese youth consumerism as a legitimate field of study. I ended up working with Professor White as my thesis advisor, and Ametora grew out of that research on Harajuku street fashion and A Bathing Ape.
What’s your favorite book which best explains your favorite era in history?
I grew up obsessed with the TV show The Wonder Years, perhaps because I was basically the same age as the main character Kevin Arnold, but also because my mother’s own boomer nostalgia rubbed off on me. Between The Wonder Years and The Monkees and Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp reruns on Nickelodeon, I was so immersed in this Sixties nostalgia as a kid that I feel nostalgia towards that nostalgia now.
As an adult, the Sixties are fascinating to me for a different reason. If you study trends, it’s clear that the decade was the period when humans experienced the fastest rate of deep, authentic cultural change. We burn through memes and internet fads these days on a daily basis but nothing sticks. For people in the Sixties, however, 1964 was nothing like 1965 — not just superficially in terms of styles but they felt that these styles were real, meaningful changes to their lives.
There are, of course, many iconic books about the 1960s, but one of my recent favorites is Manning Marable‘s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X is an incredible work, but the amount of research and detail Marable adds to an already legendary story is stunning.
What is coming out this summer (fingers crossed) which you’re most excited to read?
I feel too much of a backlog with the past to read many contemporary books. But I am excited for Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl about the culture of the American suburbs.
You can get to today’s books in another few decades… Thanks David!
W. David Marx at a signing for Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style
photo by Genteel Flair