Tag Archives: Jason Diamond

Judging Books By Their Covers

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad / Collage by Richard Kehl/Getty

Jason Diamond | Longreads | October 2017 | 19 minutes (4,639 words)

I had two wardrobes growing up: The first, at my father’s house, was made up of Air Jordans, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. At my mother’s house I had no-name brands, sneakers that were worn until they were falling apart, and second-hand shirts and sweaters that we’d pick up at the local Goodwill. That was life living under two different roofs of divorced parents in different economic brackets. My father had everything, my mother had very little. My father took us to the mall to buy things, my mother, more often than not, to thrift stores. Malls, where everything was laid out perfectly, were places to be seen carrying shopping bags; thrift stores, meanwhile, were intimate and offered more adventure. At some point, despite kids making fun of me for my shabby clothes, I grew to like the second-hand places more; you never knew what you would find. As I got older, I still shopped at thrift stores out of financial necessity, but it was also an aesthetic choice.

When I think back on the things I found in thrift stores as a teenager, my mind flashes to the jerseys of former Chicago Bulls who played during the first-half of the team’s dynasty run in the 1990s (#54 Horace Grant, #10 B.J. Armstrong), electronics no more than a decade old that were already considered obsolete, and countless copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Like a prospector, I spent my high school years combing through Abercrombie & Fitch shirts worn by the kinds of kids I tried to avoid, strings of used Christmas lights, power suits I considered wearing as a David Byrne in Stop Making Sense Halloween costume, and other things people didn’t want or need anymore, all to find one tiny morsel of gold. Those little nuggets included an “Aloha Mr. Hand” Beastie Boys ringer T-shirt when I was 14 at a Salvation Army, an autographed picture of Tim Allen that I taped up in my locker as a joke, a sealed vinyl copy of Let it Be by The Replacements, and a Mies van der Rohe-designed Barcelona chair for $40. In my trash heap of a college apartment, I played video games and spilled beer on this pricey piece of designer furniture. I assume my roommates threw it out after I left.

I’ve always gravitated towards older things. I didn’t want to wear anything brand new from The Gap or “No Fear” shirts like my classmates did, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by items people didn’t want anymore. I preferred the old VHS players that went out when DVD players came in. Cassette tapes, old copies of National Geographic and Esquire, along with other relics, served as an education of sorts. They were things I saw as a small child but hadn’t been allowed to touch or own. I’d look at old furniture and notice hand-carved signatures in the wood, a sign that somebody had made it — it wasn’t some mass-produced lump of particle board.

Then there were the books. High school had taught me about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Thrift stores gave me my first tastes of Karl Marx, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, Mary McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie. Both invaluable curriculums, but second-hand books allowed me an opportunity to design my own for about 25 cents a lesson, or five for a dollar. The covers made me feel like I was in a dusty little art gallery: The Modernist designs of Alvin Lustig for New Directions; the iconic, handsome, orange Penguin paperbacks; the seedy, sexy characters of 1950s pulp fiction.

I mostly judged the books by their covers, but there was one in particular I became obsessed with, inside and out. Used copies of this ghostly relic from 1984 are as common in thrift stores as old Barbra Streisand records or Sega Genesis video games. It’s a book I love, which I’ve had on every bookshelf I’ve owned; a book and a cover that I think sum up so much of my taste: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

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Longreads Goes to the Movies: A Reading List

It’s 10:45 p.m., and I’m about to indulge in one of my strangest habits: watching a horror movie, alone, late at night. My cat is nearby, but he sleeps through this particular ritual. There are rules; the lights stay on. I don’t watch movies about home invasions or slasher flicks. Minimal gore, please. I love demon possessions, haunted houses, and paranormal investigations. Tonight, for instance, I’m watching the American version of The Ring for the first time. I perch my laptop on the edge, reach for the soft pretzel I picked up on the way home and press play. The scenes so far are tinged green; it is always raining. There’s an ill-fated Amber Tamblyn, gone in five minutes. There’s Adam Brody, harbinger of death and teen angst. My cat stretches, body bisecting the coffee table. The ceiling fan burns bright, blades in orbit.

What are your movie habits? What films do you return to, over and over? Here are five stories about A League of Their Own, High Fidelity, the films of John Hughes, Ghost in the Shell and, the criticism of Roger Ebert.

1. “‘A League of Their Own’ Stands the Test of Time.” (ESPNW Staff, ESPN, June 2017)

An oral history celebrating the 25th anniversary of the greatest baseball movie ever made, A League of Their Own, a film based on the real-life adventures of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

2. “I Grew Up in a John Hughes Movie.” (Jason Diamond, BuzzFeed, August 2014)

Jason Diamond wrote this beautiful essay two years before his memoir Searching for John Hughes debuted, and it made me want to watch and re-watch all of his films. Diamond’s childhood in the Chicago suburb of Skokie mirrored the neighborhood in Hughes’ iconic teen-centric films, Shermer, Illinois.

3. “Roger Ebert’s Zero-Star Movies.” (Will Sloan, Hazlitt, February 2017)

I finally accepted the fact I wanted to (maybe, possibly) be a Serious Writer the same summer I read Chris Jones’ iconic profile of Roger Ebert in Esquire. Ebert has held a small but significant piece of my heart ever since. At Hazlitt, Will Sloan explores the movies Ebert hated most, where he wonders, “What does it mean when the most famous and widely read American film critic regards a movie as ‘artistically inept and morally repugnant’?”

4. “All Shell, No Ghost.” (Eric Chang, Vogue, April 2017)

On hacking as “a method of seeing,” the parallel histories of Eastern and Western cyberpunk storytelling, and the laziness inherent in whitewashed films.

5. “‘High Fidelity’ Captured the Snob’s–and the Soundtrack’s–Waning Powers.” (Sean O’Neal, The A.V. Club, March 2017)

My first movie soundtrack was PhenomenonI’ve still never seen the movie, but I know every word to Eric Clapton’s lead single, “Change the World.” I can still hear Clapton crooning “and our love would ruuuuuuuule…” I thought Bryan Ferry’s “Dance With Life (The Brilliant Life)” was unspeakably beautiful (still do, honestly). My family listened to the CD on repeat. According to MovieTunes, this soundtrack was “the cutting edge of a collaborative art-form whose time has come.” The exuberance of 1996 stands in stark contrast to 2000—what a difference four years makes!—as you can see in Sean O’Neal’s take on the jaded and vaguely anachronistic High Fidelity and its accompanying soundtrack.

A Personal Odyssey Through Florida’s Varied Regions

The New York Times has an essay by Searching for John Hughes author Jason Diamond that’s equal parts memoir and travel writing. Diamond, who’s also an editor at Rolling Stone, takes a drive through Florida from top to bottom, getting to know the state most of his family eventually settled in, but which he has only flirted with for months at a time here and there, mostly when he was much younger. Traveling from one region to the next, he comes to realize that there is no one single Florida. It’s a collection of disparate cultures.

Florida represents so much that’s good, bad and bizarre about the United States, all rolled into one long state. It’s where all of our sins go to be washed away by the ocean: drugs, shady real estate developers, and the Palm Beach County man who, in 2012, ate so many cockroaches and worms in a bug-eating contest (the prize was an ivory-ball python) that he vomited, collapsed and died.

It’s filled with beauty and contradictions. Legend tells us Ponce de León ended up sailing to somewhere near Melbourne Beach in his search for the Fountain of Youth, and grandparents go there to live out their golden years. It’s the setting for movies like “Moonlight,” and fiction by Elmore Leonard and Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg. It’s mysterious and beautiful, spooky and exciting. And yes, it’s weird.

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Behind the ‘Literary Brat Pack’ Label

At Harper’s Bazaar, Jason Diamond offers a look back at the “literary brat pack”–Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and a group of other writers in the 1980s as famous for their coke-fueled late nights at the Odeon as they were for publishing celebrated novels before the age of thirty. In his research and conversations with some of the authors, Diamond learns that the group’s label was to some degree just that–a catchall that gave the false illusion that they were part of a cohesive movement, and all tight with one another.

McInerney and Ellis were friends whose books you could conceivably connect because of their themes and flat tones. Janowitz, for all intents and purposes, was thrown into the brat pack mix because it was convenient. “I really can count on one hand the number of dinners I actually had with her,” Ellis recalls of Janowitz. They weren’t friends, but the newspapers and magazines made it seem like they were. The new guard, seemingly looking for media attention, not being very writerly. “I didn’t know those guys,” Janowitz says echoing Ellis. “We would bump into each other at various things we had been invited to, but it was like creating a movement, as if somehow we had been hanging out together beforehand.”

Yet when her 1986 short story collection, Slaves of New York, was published, McInerney, the reigning king of downtown fiction, was tasked with reviewing the book. “As a writer, it is possible to be too hip,” he wrote in a lukewarm review. The next day, Janowitz was featured on the cover of New York, standing in a meat locker and looking like a goth queen, in a black dress with skull earrings. “A female Jay McInerney?” reads the caption in a photo for the accompanying story.

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Eulogizing America’s Old School Watering Holes

Keeping a place that serves drinks open is a difficult task no matter where you do it. As the bartender at my current favorite local bar, Sharlene’s on Flatbush in Brooklyn, told me, “You need to get at least half a million to open a bar in New York anymore. You need investors and shit,” before launching into the laundry list of organizations trying to shut you down, from churches that he said he’s seen petition to get new bars from getting a liquor license, to the health department and other local officials with power to wield. I learned this at my first real neighborhood spot as an almost-adult, which was also my first introduction to just how hard it is for bar owners to stay open. I never learned the place’s name because it didn’t have a sign on the door, and Googling “Logan Square bar closed 2000” doesn’t help much. What I do remember was there were maybe seven bottles of liquor on display, they served Budweiser, Bud Light and Old Style, and Heineken was the most expensive thing on the menu.

Jason Diamond writing in The Awl about the continued disappearance and transformation of America’s salt of the earth neighborhood bars, and the idea of the so-called “dive bar.” (Full disclosure: Diamond references an essay I wrote about Los Angeles’ storied King Eddy Saloon.)

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The Magnolia Bakery Bouncer Who Hated Your Guts

“Sometimes people act like children,” my boss told me the first day she designated me the cupcake bouncer. “So you have to treat them like children.” That was the motto of Magnolia when I worked there. Nobody cared about their job; I was one of the four people I knew who worked there and had moved to New York to write. Two co-workers were dancers, and one was a girl from Greenwich who was too frightened to ever go into Brooklyn to drink with us. We hated the customers equally and felt nothing but white-hot rage every time one of them said, “Aren’t you getting so fat working here? I would eat everything!”

We hated the ones who waited in line, and when it was time to close, complained if they didn’t make it in—too bad for them, there was no sympathy. I don’t know what it’s like to work at Magnolia now, but back when it had a single owner whom we hardly ever saw, long before she sold it to a buyer that has been working with franchisees all over the world to open up Magnolias, if you bought a cupcake from Magnolia, there is a high probability that the person behind the counter hated your guts.

Jason Diamond, writing in The Billfold about his former job as a Magnolia Bakery cupcake bouncer.

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Photo: Shimelle Laine