One Great Reader, Series 2, No. 3: Jesse Pearson
You most certainly know Vice magazine, You may not, but really should, know index, which ran from 1996-2005. Jesse Pearson was the Editor-in-Chief at the former for eight years and an editor at the latter in the early 2000s. These years plumbing the edges of street and pop culture and the arts were excellent set-ups for his next, and current, venture, Apology, where since 2013 he has self-produced five dynamic issues which do what all great independent magazines should: continually make whatever's bouncing around in the EIC's head so enticing that every issue is highly anticipated, each kept and looked at several times for years to come.
I'm lifting the following from Jesse's own character-filled description of what his magazine is because I'm charmed by its references from all parts of the field: "Apology is inspired in equal measure by The New Yorker under William Shawn’s editorship; 1980s and 90s punk zines; the Encyclopedia Britannica, The People’s Almanac and MAD magazine." It's not a quarterly, it's not biannual, it's not even annual (five issues since 2013, do the math), and I really like that not only is the content (along with each cover, which smartly is always sans text save the title) unpredictable, but so are the release dates. For almost a year now Jesse has been podcasting with engaging people he likes, where it's mostly discussions about reading, and regularly displays on Instagram his exceptional and unconventional tastes in books and writers (thank you for both!). So while we await issue number six, do listen to his episodes and look at his IG. But after you read this.- Wes Del Val
WDV: What are three books you’ve already reread and are sure you’ll do so again in your lifetime?
JP: My security-blanket books are The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Pet Sematary by Stephen King, and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I guess the common thread is they’re all slightly brainy horror blockbusters with bleak outcomes. The way I read any of the three now is just opening the book randomly and falling in.
Specifics: I like how The Secret History is structured and where it’s set and the way its ensemble of characters interacts. I like the world-building and the pervasively gloomy mood of The Silence of the Lambs. I like that Pet Sematary is unapologetically gnarly from start to finish, that almost everyone in it dies, and that it has a wendigo.
I especially like that you’ve become so familiar with and find such comfort in them that you now prefer to randomly open and read. Two questions regarding that: 1) Each time you do such with either of them do you find yourself having new favorite sections that you’d not had previously? 2) Do you elsewhere traditionally read from beginning to end and/or do you have any personal reading quirks? I know I fairly often read magazines backwards piece by piece and almost always read the acknowledgements before starting a nonfiction book.
My favorite parts have remained the same, but I might find more nuance in passages I’d previously sped through. The only thing I can think of in terms of reading quirks is that I tend to skip the childhood portions of biographies.
I absolutely agree and wish I could as well, but I just can’t not read every word if I’m going to read read a book. Those years are never my favorite parts of a biography and when I think of all the time I could have used elsewhere...deep sigh.
Which authors have scared you the most?
When I was young it would have been Stephen King, Henry James just for The Turn of the Screw, and Peter Straub just for Ghost Story. In more recent times, Thomas Ligotti’s work makes me truly uncomfortable—both his horror fiction and also his antinatalist manifesto The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. And just a few weeks ago, a re-read of Mike Davis’s The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu fucked me up pretty good.
The last two certainly present the effect in their titles. I’ve started Ligotti’s Conspiracy a few times and maybe now this will push me to proceed further as I do relish the singular feeling of reading words and being made uncomfortable when and/or if that is one of the author’s intentions.
What’s a book which radically changed your view of its subject after you finished it?
Pranks by V. Vale and Andrea Juno. The San Francisco punk publisher RE/Search originally released it in 1987. It contains interviews with various people around the ideas of monkey-wrenching and tricksterism. I first read it when I was 14 and it helped me learn that rules are just things people make up and that you don’t have to follow them.
Oh but wait I just read your question more closely. A book that changed my view of its subject after I read it… It would probably be a history book. Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill comes to mind.
I’m actually very pleased you mentioned RE/Search, I feel like people who mostly only know having access to the internet their whole lives might not be as familiar with them as they should be. I’d hate for them to get left behind. Can you please tell me more about what their books and general publishing programme have meant to you?
This will sound codgerish, but when I was young, like pre-teen and before I could go into the city alone, it was pretty hard to find information about weird music, art, films, writers, and ideas. No internet, blah blah blah. So a thing like RE/Search, which felt like reference material for punk, industrial, transgressive sex, and so-called “outsider art,” was truly formative. I found Pranks and Industrial Culture Handbook at a local comic book store and then memorized them. RE/Search also introduced me to Charles Willeford, one of my favorite writers.
Do you like to know a lot or a little about an author’s biography when reading one of their books for the first time? And have you ever changed your opinions about a work for better or worse once you found out anything specific about a writer?
Usually I don’t care about the bio before the reading. What does happen is I’ll read one or two books by someone, fall in love, read all their books, and then read the bio. A couple examples would be Cookie Mueller and Richard Yates. But I don’t think a biography has ever radically changed my opinion of a writer.
What source accessible to everyone consistently gives you the best book recommendations?
My podcast, and I’m not trying to be cute. I started it specifically to get reading recommendations. The guests deliver.
They certainly do. As do you I want to add. Yours is the only podcast where I’ve listened to every episode and I’ve picked up numerous exciting new writer names, titles, and even a few genres.
Thanks, glad to hear that.
A mainstream book publisher asks you to compile an anthology exploring counterculture from 2000-2020 as you define it. You can pick from books, magazines, interviews, online articles, blog posts, twitter feeds, etc. Assume you get permission for everything. Who and what do you feature?
I’d reject the job. The only reason a mainstream publisher might care about the so-called counterculture is profits and that’s gross.
Then let’s scrap “mainstream” for I wanted that corral to have an influence on what you’d pick as editor knowing it had to sell, which is of course always tricky when dealing with topics of “counterculture.” I’d still very much like to know what would make it into such an anthology which would satisfy you. And I daresay that if it satisfied you it would do the same for a number of others, but I’m fine leaving money out of it…
I don’t know why, but I’m still resisting this question. Maybe it takes more thought-work than I feel like doing right now. I know that I’ve never put a special emphasis on being contemporary with the things I read and watch. And my memory is terrible.
Ok, we can leave it there then. God, my memory is a shambles as well. I was thinking how I would answer that same question as it really is a book I wish was published, and I hit a wall after a handful. Oh well, maybe someone reading this will take the idea and do it.
What are the first few sections you usually gravitate towards when visiting a used bookstore?
Poetry, fiction, hobbies and crafts, belles-lettres.
In what order do you prefer your books, 1 being most preferable: hardcover, paperback, mass market, eBook, first edition, new, used, library book.
Used, paperback, hardcover, mass-market, library book, new, eBook, first edition.
Is anyone designing covers these days whose work regularly excites you? How about your favorite cover designers of all time?
For me it’s not so much about the designer as it is the illustrator. In that department I love horror paperbacks from the ’70s and ’80s. There’s a book called Paperbacks from Hell that collects a lot of them. I also like to look at novels from the ’70s that have strictly typographic covers. Like the original editions of a few later John Cheever books. I liked the design of the Cookie Mueller biography Edgewise.
From your point of view what is underrated right now in the world of reading?
Why do you think that is, yes perpetually, with poetry? It seems so many great readers rarely extend into that category. I follow on social media quite a few people whom I truly consider great readers and they almost never mention poetry.
People have been mind-tricked into thinking that all poetry is fey, obscurant, and corny. And I think some people feel inadequate when they look at a poem and don’t get it. But what should be kept in mind is that nobody gets it. Not even the poets. That’s my favorite part. That’s why a first reading of any poem should be loose and easy. No expectations, no pressure. You can get more rigorous if you find a part that calls out to you.
Who are some writers whose words you strive to never miss, whether they be in book, article, or social media post form?
Eileen Myles, Neal Stephenson, Patti Harrison, Sam McPheeters, Bob Nickas, Vernon Chatman, Lee Child (ugh), Laurie Weeks, Renata Adler (on the off chance that she publishes something totally new).
Why the “ugh” with Lee Child? Are you embarrassed to include? Have you ever found yourself during your career, depending on the person you’re with or circle you’re in, not saying you like a particular book or author for fear of having your taste questioned? I’m always very intrigued how people handle their real opinions in different social situations, especially when books are being discussed.
Yeah, that was a pretty ambiguous ugh. I was only thinking about how he writes the exact same novel each time, and I read it each time. (PS: I don’t hide my opinions or taste. That would preempt a lot of fun conversations.)
What were the literary-related high points for you while at index and Vice?
At index, publishing Laurie Weeks and Eileen Myles. At Vice, publishing a rare piece by Charles Willeford and interviewing Elmore Leonard. Apology is an extended series of literary-related high points (and it’s weird you didn’t ask about it).
I specifically excluded Apology as since you are the founder and have total control I figured everything that made it into each issue was a high point. Are there some higher-than-others points for you after five issues?
Getting to dig through a huge pile of Frederick Exley’s papers from the University of Rochester was really cool. I found a rare piece buried in them and published it. All I really want to do is dig through boxes of old books all day. My sister is a librarian, and I’m jealous of that.
I’m sure more than a few people who just read those last two sentences are nodding their heads right now. I know I am. Thanks Jesse!