There must be certain texts which become available to each generation in their youth and then remain with them: a background, forgotten bass rhythm throughout their lives. Certainly, I had forgotten about reading Erving Goffman in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Asylums, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and, I think, Stigma. They were required reading, part of the unofficial University of Pelican Books course on gathering information and ideas about the world. Month by month, titles came out by Laing and Esterson, Willmott and Young, J.K. Galbraith, Maynard Smith, Martin Gardner, Richard Leakey, Margaret Mead; psychoanalysts, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, historians, physicists, biologists and literary critics, each offering their latest thinking for an unspecialised public, and the blue spines on the pile of books on the floor of the bedsit increased. If you weren't at university studying a particular discipline (and even if you were), Pelican books were the way to get the gist of things, and education seemed like a capacious bag into which all manner of information was thrown, without the slightest concern about where it belonged in the taxonomy of knowledge. Anti-psychiatry, social welfare, economics, politics, the sexual behaviour of young Melanesians, the history of science, the anatomy of this, that and the other, the affluent, naked and stagnant society in which we found ourselves - it all poured in and slopped around, bits and pieces sticking together and coming apart to make some other combination. Like dialectic but a lot messier. I imagined that if you went to university you ended up with an immaculately catalogued library in your mind; and that if you didn't, and just picked the latest Pelicans off the shelves (along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Soledad Brother, Catch 22, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and whatever else flew into your consciousness) you got something more like a second-hand bookshop - a place where you could rummage pleasurably for hours and come away with a quite different idea from what you thought you might have been looking for.
LRB 4 March 2004 | PDF Download