The first train I took in my summer reading was the M Train by Patti Smith. I just listened to a podcast interview with her and learned that the M stands for “mind,” like follow your train of thought.
Unlike her earlier book, Just Kids, which traces her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is a meditation on writing and life. More than anything, I got a sense of who Patti is as a person, her day-to-day habits and routines, and how she works, crossing over genres of music, writing, photography. She is an artist in what I think of as the truest sense: she takes her thoughts and interests seriously and follows them obsessively in all her various mediums. Some of the things I learned about Patti:
- She drinks a lot of coffee. The book could have easily been called the M train with a large black to go.
- She is a creature of comfort habits. Eats and drinks the same coffee and plain toast with olive oil every day at the same place and same table, wears the same uniform of white shirts, black ‘”dungarees,” a watch cap, “bee” socks, and a black coat day in and out.
- She travels far and wide to take photographs of objects or places that people who inspire her have touched or lived in. Frida Kahlo’s bed, Virginia Woolf’s cane, Sylvia Plath’s grave (a lot of graves, actually) and so on. Sometimes she gets to touch these objects and places, too, as if there is a transmitted energy of the previous owner’s energy and genius vibrating within. Somehow, I get this. It’s why I like historic places and artifacts, imagining the feet, hands, heart, and lives lived with the object.
- She writes obsessively. And often on napkins, receipts and other scraps of paper which she stuffs into pockets.
- She wings it. A lot. Particularly speeches and performances.
- She is obsessed with detective TV shows, particularly British ones. She seems to find in them the same level of quality and inspiration that she does famous novels or poetry. She likes them enough expressly to fly to London, check herself into a hotel and watch TV for days.
- She binge reads. She describes becoming obsessed with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, reading it over and over and over. She obsessively researched Tokyo trying to figure out where the novel was set because she wanted to go there. Then she lost her copy and forgot to go to the site when she visited Tokyo. Her behavior reminds me of how, say, churches or temples fall into ruin or sacred ceremonies are lost.
- She doesn’t open her mail for months, but replies quick-as-a-wink once she finds a letter of interest.
- She keeps cats. Possibly too many cats.
Patti’s lifestyle and her thoughts takes me back to my early twenties, when I was living the post-college ragtag artist life, traveling, writing, painting, drinking coffee by the gallon, reading French existentialist writers, hanging out in cafes–and listening to Patti Smith. I love that she’s still doing it. I’ll read anything that Patti publishes. She’s fascinating.
The other train I took was the novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. This book was not originally on my 20 Books of Summer list, but it is now. The book flap describes it as an “epic in miniature,” which is pretty perfect.
It’s the story of Robert Grainer in the early years of the twentieth century, which are also the final years of the changes wrought to West in the nineteenth. Robert’s small story of love and loss is intertwined with his experiences with the iconic and often stereotyped aspects of the old West: the railroad and its “Chinamen” builders, logging, raising a cabin, wildfires, wise old Indians, and so on. It feels like much more than its 119 pages.