I was seventeen, lonely, bored, and desperate for a change. My plan to escape from home and hitchhike around the world wasn’t really taking wind, and school was out only in my head. I needed a quick fix of meaningfulness.
Youngsters, particularly dissatisfied ones like I was at that time, are an ideal breeding ground for ideas, as demonstrated by all the young people interested in joining Isis even in the West. Those kids want to believe in something but they don’t believe in anything they’ve got. They want something new, something more exciting and convincing than the answers given by their parents.
All kids worth their mettle rebel. Only by rebellion can they break out of the control their parents wield on them. I believe it is the very rebellion that creates the calm, contented people you see out there riding their bikes to work and baking for the school apple pie sale. Rebellion gets some grudges out of your system, unless you go overboard and are consumed by it, as in the case of those who are attracted to violent organizations like Isis.
My rebellion happened through a book called Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. It’s written by Greil Marcus and centers around finding connections between punk rock and various art and philosophical movements earlier that century. When I read this book, the scales fell from my eyes. Sex Pistols sang in the song I Wanna Be Me:
And now is the time to realize
To have real eyes.
Every day was wrought with excitement when looked through the eyes this book provided. I wanted to be me, and this book showed me the reflections of things I had seen in myself but not dared to acknowledge. This was something new.
I was deluged with fascinating new isms. Dadaism, situationism, Lettrism, nihilism, anarchism… Of course there was also punk rock. That was the reason I found this book. I’d listened to some punk rock but this was a crash course into its philosophical foundations and an explanation into what made me listen.
Lipstick Traces overturned everything I believed in. It contained slogans like: “There is no future” or “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” It painted the picture of Dadaists in the early 20th century in all their disorganized glory. These were the coolest things I had ever seen or heard.
For someone raised in a Christian family this was Rock’n Roll at its filthiest, but that for me was a recommendation. I didn’t actually believe these things, I knew there was a future and I realized that anarchist ideals could never work in a world made of humans, but negating the certainty of future and playing around with anarchism and nihilism felt incredibly liberating to me. This book made me realize that I wasn’t forced to live my life just like everybody else lived theirs. I had a choice.
I never read the whole book. It’s over 400 pages long and written like a cultural history. With a young person’s impatience, I skimmed. I’ve been planning to read it cover to cover now that I’m all grown, but I haven’t gotten round to it yet. Maybe I’m afraid the magic will dissipate upon re-reading it.
No book has ever made me feel like this book did back then, and I doubt no book ever will again. Too much life has passed and life forces a certain level of cynicism on you. I still get enthusiastic about things, but it’s not the same brand of enthusiasm. It’s the enthusiasm of a well-trained lapdog that doesn’t even require a leash. At seventeen that lapdog still thought he was a wolf.
But the legacy of Lipstick Traces remains with me. It’s in the fact that I’m ready to do things differently. I’m always eager for new experiences. I know there is a future but I still recognize the feeling of freedom that comes when chanting that there is no future, the lure of a world where nothing is true and everything permitted. I love random weirdness. I still admire the honesty of people who say things as they are, and don’t skirt around trying to be politically correct. I love Dadaism and all such foolishness that goes under the name of art. There are still traces of Lipstick Traces all over my soul.
What do you think? Is youth a typical time to have your life transformed by books? I suppose I’m not talking about religious books, since a religious awakening can probably transform your life at any point. Have you had a life-changing experience through reading a book?