The book that changed your life: JJ Lee
With this year’s edition of the Word on the Street festival set to run from September 28 to 30, we asked some of the writers on the wildly diverse bill to tell us about the reading experiences that shaped them. Which book left deep impressions early on? Which one overhauled the way they see and think about the world, and set them on a path to a literary life?
Here’s what JJ Lee told us. Lee is a locally based essayist and fashion writer, as well as the author of the memoir The Measure of a Man.
He’ll be participating in a panel discussion called “There Is No ‘I’ in Reporter” at 12 p.m. on September 30, in the Magazine Life Tent outside the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library.
The Norton Critical Edition of Oedipus Tyrannus by Sophocles makes for an odd source from which literary aspirations spring. I found the book when I was 12. I came across it in our bungalow’s basement den. The den had been haphazardly located by the previous owner. You had to pass through the furnace room to get there. My mother and sisters rarely entered the room and so naturally it became a refuge and keeping place for the lurid, pathetic, braised concoction that is frustrated male fantasy.
The den would fail to meet the standard of the contemporary man-cave. Faux wood lined the walls and a ratty pea green wall-to-wall covered the floor. It had no TV or bar. Opposite the door, under a small high window, sat a dark, heavy desk bracketed by crudely constructed bookshelves. There my father kept a small selection of military books. My father was a wily man and he believed he would have made a brilliant strategist.
One of the more scandalous books he owned, in my mind, was Walter Goerlitz’s History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945. It boasted an iron cross on its cover, and stumbling across it would be like finding a well-thumbed copy of Mein Kampf on a friend’s coffee or a set of antique SS cufflinks on the night table. It made you wonder.
My father before parenthood aspired to be a photograper. And so on the shelves sat a 26-volume encyclopedia on photography. In the N book, there were exceptional examples of nude female torsos, which I studied with precocious onanistic attention (Volume 15).
My father also held on to his books from his truncated college career. Among them I found Oedipus Tyrannus. I had no interest in Greek tragedy but I often scanned books for any morsel of smut. The front of the book had the play, so I flipped through it without titillation. But then I found two essays in the middle: “Taboo and Neurotic Guilt in Oedipus Theme” by Thalia Phillies Feldman; and “The Oedipus Complex” by Sigmund Freud. They discussed the delicate matter of having SEX with your MOTHER.
Hooked, I read most of the essays in the book. And now, looking back, they were brilliant ones. They were erudite. They drew upon literature, philosophy, and personal experience to make their points. I was fascinated by the passages of quoted text. I had never seen that before. And here was the thing that floored me most: many of the essayists used the pronoun I. The essayists expressed opinions and conjectured. They talked about school stuff as if it were stuff in their back pocket. They name-dropped Aristotle and Shakespeare, and trash-talked other academics. They argued and preened. And for me, they opened the world of canonical literature, classicism, and, ultimately, interesting nonfiction. Not boring school textbooks but vital vibrant writing about the world. In the end, the essays in Oedipus Tyrannus weren’t about sex, but I found them sexy.
From then on, in school and then later as a journalist, whether it was an illustrated essay on Jacques Cartier or lit-crit work on J.D. Salinger or Michel Foucault, or a documentary on military simulation or three-piece suits, I always affected an air of erudition.
When I wrote, I acted like culture—all of it, high and low, from Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes to Sumerian steles to saddle shoes—was simply in my back pocket. It was a strange book for a 12-year-old, but in its way, it made me fall in love with smart people, smart writing, and, to a limited degree, being smart.