Dear DJ: Lately, I’ve been reading excruciatingly well-researched historical novels set between 1780 and 1820 written by early/mid-20th Century Englishmen: The Poldark novels by Winston Graham, and the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian. I don’t know if it’s the stories of men of a manlier age that attract me or the erudition, dedication, and rich vocabularies of the authors. It got me wondering what a wordsmithing hipster such as you might be reading, and whether literature is an essential thread in the hipster tapestry? — P. Killick, Shelter Island
Is literature essential to hipster society? As the Grey Poupon guy would say, “But of course!” It’s no surprise that the image of the pensive hipster literati — at repose in a twee coffee shop, enraptured by some musty tome — is such an immediately recognizable trope.
Every hipster must read and claim to understand David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest by his 30th birthday, lest he be stripped of his bonafides through the public airing of all the lame, mainstream shit the former hipster has been secretly indulging in when he should have been chuckling to himself at the knowing, literary in-jokes of 1990s hipster fiction.
The hipster literary canon goes back at least to Ulysses by James Joyce, which embodies the hipster spirit by showing readers just how cool the writer is. Indeed, the book arguably exists for no other purpose. Some hipster scholars fairly say that Kafka prefigures (post)modern hipster literature, because of the the nagging suspicion that Kafka was just a weirdo, not one of the oh-so-clever enfant terrible hipster authors who came after.
Various 20th-century authors have borne the torch of literary hipsterosity: hipsters warmly received Charles Bukowski’s message that “bar fly” wasn’t a strictly pejorative term. William Gibson gifted us the word “cyberspace” and planted the fertile seeds of digital culture long before we had the means to realize it. Dave Eggers so despised mainstream literary culture that he invented his own hipster magazine just to publish stories that were too cool to land anywhere else.
If there’s a common thread here (and you best bet there is) it’s that the hipster literary mind will always be smugly convinced of its own smartness. In that regard we can differentiate hipster literature from, say, chick lit, which relies on brutal earnesty to get where it needs to. No hipster would be so sincere. Ditto for hard-boiled thriller novels and the vast majority of nonfiction books; all of which take themselves super seriously. Not that that’s a per se bad thing, but it’s not hipster.
Of course, hipsters read beyond the pale. In the past year, I have read not one but two books about the United States Supreme Court in the middle 20th Century, an older volume of Best American Short Stories that I got for ten cents at a yard sale, the better part of a Fannie Farmer cookbook, a random book about golf, the complete Calvin and Hobbes, and a novel that unreasonably glorifies life in Seattle during the Grunge era. I also flipped through an old copy of Gray’s Anatomy that I keep on my coffee table.
I do this because the absolute most important thing a hipster can do is read widely, so as to maximize his potential for obscure historical and pop cultural references.