On Friday night, I attended a reading by Al Burian at Book Thug Nation in Williamsburg. Burian is touring in support of his new zine, the long-awaited Burn Collector #15.
It was a good time. The tiny space filled to standing room only. Anna and I got seats, near a standing guy whose leather motorcycle jacket squeaked loudly when he shifted his weight. And while I’d have been more than happy for a chance to see Al Burian, whose personal essay-type stylings inspired me back when I first lived in New York, not so many blocks from the little book-lined room where the reading was, during my own transition into grown-up life and my still fondly remembered forays into personal blog writing—while I’d have been happy just for a chance to see him in the flesh and hear him read a couple pieces from the new zine, he smashed expectations and put on a real show, speaking extemporaneously to the full room about topics like happiness, freedom, toothache, the Unabomber, Berlin, rock and roll, regret…happiness being the refrain, the thread that tied it all together. He’s showmanly and funny, self-deprecating yet intense.
Favorite moment (I didn’t take any notes, so I hope I’m getting this right): he was talking about Aristotle’s concept of happiness, which is more about ethics than hedonics. Does happiness = maxing out on pleasure, or is it something more total and complex—maybe even something that takes place on a time horizon that the pursuit of mere pleasure can hardly conceive of? (Great Burn Collector 15 quote: “for Aristotle, life is pass/fail.”) From there he got to talking about our Jeffersonian rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and wondering about the relationship among them. The social compacts that make up what we call civilization extend life, but may curtail liberty. And where does happiness fit in, relative to either? Does happiness belong to the lion who lives hard & dies young on the savanna, or the one who lives to a ripe old age, performing for circus crowds and caged to the last?
Here he stopped, and gestured around the room, at the bookshelves that lined the walls from floor to ceiling, at the hand-lettered signs and the simple cashier’s desk. He’d stumbled on a plausible, even convincing example of the premise he was trying out, that happiness is a result of accepting and excelling in and dominating, fully inhabiting one’s cage, rather than making yourself sick wondering what’s outside it and how you might get there. I’m not sure I agree with this, and I have a feeling that Burian’s still trying it on for size, too, but the moment I liked so much was when he invited us to look at the room and said, “I mean, this bookstore is a cage for Aaron and the other people who work here. But maybe happiness for them is touching the ceiling of this cage. Maybe happiness is looking at this shelf”—he directed our group gaze to a pair of tall plywood shelves on casters, which I’d seen being cumbersomely rolled out of the middle of the room earlier to make space for the audience—”and knowing about it, and how heavy it is, and saying, god, this bookshelf sucks!”
Happiness is building a cage to your own specifications and then living in it, abiding by its annoyances, even delighting in them, because they’re your annoyances. Discuss amongst yourselves.*
Burian is touring with Aaron Lake Smith, who writes the zine Big Hands, and started the evening out by reading an enjoyable short story (highlight: the bit about a middle-school boy in North Carolina who convinces his parents to redecorate his room so that it looks like a New York City apartment á la Taxi Driver and similar films). Big Hands and Burn Collector are both available from Microcosm, the terrific indie press and distro that also used to distribute 400 Words, way back when.
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