I’ve been enjoying Alec Baldwin’s new interview show. I know he’s a polarizing figure and so I’ll leave that debate for another day. It also hasn’t gotten great reviews. I think some of that is because it is decidedly old-fashioned. But, this isn’t about the show, really. I want to write about a question Baldwin asked Ricky Gervais (another polarizing figure) on a recent episode.
Baldwin asked, “What was your household like as a child with regards to culture? What books, music, or TV was around?”
As an interview question, it’s a softball opening because it lets the interviewee paint the picture they want. It also allows for some grandstanding if one was so inclined. Still, it’s an interesting one to think about with regards to your own life and that of your children.
I grew up in a house that wasn’t necessarily awash in music or books. My parents both liked to listen to the radio when I was younger but that went away as I got older. It just wasn’t something I have much recollection of except in the car. My Mom often had the radio on while taking me to school. My Dad would sing old songs while I traveled with him for his work. It was around but not deemed all that important. It was something that sort of sat in the background or passed the time.
My Mom is an avid reader and so there were books around but I don’t remember her talking to me about them much. That might have been because I was too busy reading anything I could get my hands on. My Dad was not into books really. I don’t recall ever seeing him reading a book. Magazines, yes. But not books.
My Mom recently gave me a box filled with a lot of the books I had as a kid. It was a treasure and I’ve been thrilled to share them with my son. They sit on the shelves of his room which are filled with other books.
Any flat surface in our house is probably stacked with books. Since we moved into a smaller place, we have a storage rental filled with probably a thousand books. They used to line the walls of our previous house.
All that to say that I wonder about myself why I want music playing all the time and to have shelves on shelves of books. Many cynics have written about the person with shelves full of books they haven’t read. They treat it as some sort of facade or mask that the owner wants to present. I suppose that could be true and maybe in my darker moments, it’s true of me as well.
What I really like about sharing music or showing off books is that it helps to define who I am and more importantly who I want to be. It describes parts of me that are otherwise impossible to describe or so far outside what’s expected that they’d seem laughable if not limned by the possession of a book or knowledge of a singer’s provenance.
I’ve struggled in my life to coalesce around a central image of who I am and who I should be or who I could be. It’s been core to many of the issues I’ve faced with obsessive behavior, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Maybe there’s a certain dissociative side of me that sometimes loses its grip on the lifeline at the center.
Books and music help remind me on a daily basis of the things I hold true, the parts of the world I care about, and the better natures I want to discover.
If someone asks my son in 40 years what the culture was like in his house growing up, I hope he’d say something like, “We had tons of books about all kinds of things but a lot of science fiction. There was always a book to look at or a magazine to thumb through. Music was always playing. Anything from socialist reggae from the 60s to the latest pop club banger. It was all fair game.”
I know that he’ll find the bits of all of this that pluck some string inside him or maybe, like me, he’ll recognize that adding it all up into a maelstrom of input has a certain value too. I hope he doesn’t struggle in the ways I have but I do hope that he recognizes the value of surrounding yourself with the things that have meaning and whose value exist only through that meaning.