Writer and educator Ken Hollings outlines the cheap paperbacks that were his earliest inspirations

27 March 2019
Reading Time
7 minute read

Ken Hollings is a writer, broadcaster and cultural theorist based in London who also teaches at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins. All published by Stange Attractor Press, his previous books include Welcome to Mars, a “darkly-humorous history of America from 1947-1959” and Bright Labrinth, a “subtle and sometimes disturbing account of how technology has impacted upon human culture”. His most recent publications, The Space Oracle and Inferno, Volume 1 feature a “radical retelling of our relationship with the cosmos” and “tales from the underground and exploitation movie scene in America during the 1960s” respectively.

Clearly a man with wide-ranging interests, and as someone whose primary medium is words but who teaches on various visual communication and graphic design courses, we asked Ken to give us a run-down of some of his most-treasured titles, and their importance on his practice.

“I’ve always thought of books as a starting point, not a destination,” he tells us. “Sometimes it’s what a book leads to that is more important – it can change your entire life.” When attempting to whittle down just five favourites, Ken “decided to go back to some of the books that have been among my earliest inspirations and influences”. A range of cheap paperbacks, small enough to slip into your pocket, Ken tells us on why he chose this specific format of book: “As a kid, I was always running around town with a book in my hands – reading in cafes, on buses and in parks. I’d skip school just so I could finish a book in peace. The cheap paperback was like a god to me.”

Today, although dog-eared and with yellowed pages, the significance of each book’s interior remains the same, a fact Ken has attempted to celebrate by “showing some of the things that have ended up trapped between their pages serving as a temporary bookmark – where of course I have so thoughtlessly left them”.

William S Burroughs: The Soft Machine, Corgi Books 1970

I just read a comment on YouTube: “William Burroughs brought me here”. Totally get that. This Corgi edition of The Soft Machine started everything. It grabbed me from the first line. I came across the book in a corner shop on the outskirts of Manchester when I was about 13. I was looking through a rack of comic books and men’s adventure magazines. They had been imported in bulk from the US and distributed to stores pretty much at random so you never knew what you’d find. Straight bookstores and newsagents would never stock that kind of stuff, so you had to keep digging. There was also a load of cheap paperbacks in there – spy novels, romances, garish science fiction…and this. The cover design, the type, the cover and the title had a visceral effect on me. I’ve never been the same since. The cut-up method that Burroughs employs throughout its composition killed the conventional novel for me before I even knew what it was. Cut-ups showed me that there were so many other things you could do with words. I’ll always be grateful for that.

The bookmark is a boarding card stub for a flight to New York about three weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center – but most of the details on it have faded now.

Matsuo Bashō: The Narrow Road to the Deep North And Other Travel Sketches, Penguin Classics 1972

When I was a teenager, my aunt Edna, who had studied Zen in Japan, advised me to pray to Matsuo Bashō: the most famous poet of the Edo period. She said he would offer me help and guidance with my writing. I read Bashō closely, which was the nearest I could get to praying at the time, and have hung onto my old paperback copy over the years.

Bashō’s accounts of his travels are so elegant – so plain and so simple. I won’t say more about the quality of the language, as this is a translation. Bashō skilfully blends simple journal entries, linked haiku and observations into an extended series of landscapes. The paragraph that opens “The Records of a Travel Warn Satchel” is the barest, most naked statement made by a writer about writing – I feel humbled just to read it. I love the old Penguin Classics edition with its unfussy detail and the bleed on the cover. This was standard for the imprint at the time – buying books in the series meant you could build up your own small gallery of artworks from all around the world. Penguin Classics were better than postcards in this respect because you can always find a place for them – but where do you put a postcard?

Inside a book, it would seem. This one shows the Honourable Lady Stanhope and the Countess of Effingham as Diana and her companion

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Gay Science, Vintage 1974

For many years now I have taken a volume by Friedrich Nietzsche with me on holiday. The aim is to finish it before I return home. I’m fully aware of how that sounds – but being away from my daily routine is the only time I ever get to do any really serious reading so I try not to waste it. I am currently working on a series of essays for BBC Radio 3 about my experiences holidaying with Nietzsche – due for broadcast in the spring of 2019. This edition of Nietzsche comes from a paperback series of his works that used the same format and simple design throughout – the colour scheme would vary for each of the different titles to establish some kind of uniformity.

I took this copy with me around the Greek Islands one blazing hot summer. It marked my first attempt at reading Nietzsche, and I continue to have an abiding affection for this particular work of his. The Gay Science introduced me to the aphorism as a basic component of writing – and I frequently use numbered sections in my own work in deference to its influence. I don’t think I did so well reading Nietzsche that summer, but I have got better at it since.

The bookmark is a leaf that had fallen from an ancient plane tree on the island of Kos. Hippocrates, the founder of Western medical practice, is said to have taught under its shade over 2000 years ago.

Ursula Meyers: Conceptual Art, Dutton 1972

I came a little late to Ursula Meyer’s brilliant introduction to conceptual art, but its impact was immediate and long-lasting. She identifies and explores the philosophical, epistemological and linguistic origins of a movement that was never really a movement at all. The book is essentially one long sequence of essays, declarations and documentation by individual artists that gives the initial impression of one long coherent statement. It’s where I first read Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, which had a great impact on me, and where I saw early work by Lawrence Weiner, Daniel Buren, Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari and Bernd and Hilla Becher. It seemed to me that they were really doing all the jobs that writers should have been doing – and doing it better. Roger Cutforth’s six-page The Empire State Building: A Reference Work is an absolute tour de force. I still regard most of the contributors to Ursula Meyer’s book as writers first and artists second, and that is mostly due to the way in which she presents them.

The bookmark is one of the postcards issued by Strange Attractor Press to promote my book The Bright Labyrinth. It reproduces one of the amazing illustrations created for it by Matthew Frame who created the most detailed panoramic visual representations of the themes in each chapter. Because I’m using it as a bookmark this one has been presented on its side – but the fact that it retains its structural coherence demonstrates how well his deployment of these visual motifs works.

Norma O Brown: Love’s Body, Vintage 1966

Reading Basho led me to appreciate the writings of the American composer John Cage. It was working with John Cage some years later that led me in turn to the writings of the social philosopher Norman O Brown. Cage constantly references him in his essays and lectures – Brown’s thinking on the spiritual liberation of the body and the mind are fundamental. You can feel in Brown’s take on the exquisite materiality of human existence the early influence of Georges Bataille, which is another reason why I was so attracted to Love’s Body. Like Nietzsche, Brown moved towards an aphoristic approach; both had an influence upon the formal ordering of The Bright Labyrinth and The Space Oracle. Love’s Body is composed of individual stand-alone paragraphs, each containing their own bibliographic references, arranged in sequences structured around such central themes as “Nature”, “Head”, “Resurrection” etc. It is a tragically overlooked work – and one of the most perfect examples of a writer working closely with a graphic designer to produce a complex but seductive expression of their ideas. Writing works best for me when it is considered as communication design. Literary form is of secondary interest except as a device. It’s the shaping of the idea that counts.

The bookmark is a Catholic tract from a religious guesthouse and conference centre in Venice – I do not remember even the slightest detail of my picking it up, but the reason why I did seems pretty clear to me now.

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.


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