|photo: Maria Celis
Stefano Bloch is a cultural and urban geographer, ethnographer and a semiretired graffiti writer from Los Angeles. He is assistant professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. The memoir Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA's Graffiti Subculture is his first book (just out from the University of Chicago Press).
On your nightstand now:
A book called Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt, which I bought to distract myself from having to read for work but have never actually opened. On top of that is Noam Chomsky's On Anarchism, which I left on the dashboard of my van during a recent family road trip across the U.S., so the glue along the spine dried up and cracked, and now I am afraid to pick it up again because the pages will fall all over the floor.
Favorite book when you were a child:
No one read to me when I was a kid and I didn't start reading on my own until I was about 19 and walked down to Skylight Books in my neighborhood in L.A. I went there to buy one of the books displayed on the inside cover of Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire album. It was Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.
Before that, I guess my favorite book from when I was a kid was Where Did I Come From, even though I never actually read it. Those of you who have seen it, or like me, had it laying around in the house when you were a kid in the 1980s, know what I am talking about.
I also had a copy of My Book of Bible Stories that some Jehovah's Witnesses gave to my grandmother. She didn't speak much English and thought it was wonderful how in the U.S. people knocked at your door and handed you free books... gaudy, gold-colored books no less! I loved the pictures in that book: from the bubbling lava and erupting volcanoes on the first page to the lions and deer and children of every race frolicking together on the last pages, with pictures of lepers and unspeakable violence and absurd redemption in between. I thought it was all so beautiful, scary and hilarious. My grandma kept it in her dishwasher, and I would look through it when I went to visit her. I think she thought the dishwasher was a very oddly designed cabinet for free books and junk mail judging by how she used it.
Your top five authors:
Right now, my top five authors are the ones keeping my kids glued to their books and keeping me interested in reading to them when they ask: Rick Riordan, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Chris Colfer and Kazu Kibuishi. Calef Brown, too.
But my favorite author, in general, is anyone who has enough confidence and trust in their reader to keep it real without needing to dazzle, overexplain or impress.
Book you've faked reading:
It is not that I faked reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, but I never actually finished it. For some reason I stopped when the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, is out walking in the countryside outside of the city. For some reason I just can't let it end, so I pretend I finished it. My partner, who did finish it, brings it up in private every so often. I feel ashamed when she does.
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, of course. It used to be Cervantes's Don Quixote, but I don't want to burden anyone.
Book you've bought for the cover:
What Do One Million Ja Tags Signify? by Dumar Novy. I am afraid to damage it, so I haven't even opened it.
Book you hid from your parents:
I didn't grow up with boundaries, or books.
Book that changed your life:
The Fall by Camus felt like it was written for me. I couldn't believe that a book could resonate the way that one did. It was almost scary. That said, I can't remember anything about it other than how I felt while reading it. But it was The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano that changed me, politically. I realized there was so much more laying beneath the surface, literally and metaphorically speaking. Then there was Franz Kafka's The Castle. It left me breathless as I read it, which was pretty life changing--to realize a book can leave you breathless.
But really, every book has changed my life. I mean that sincerely. Reading everything by Milan Kundera, as well as tearing through the The Firm by John Grisham in one sitting, were equally life altering when I was in my early 20s, but for very different reasons.
More recently, the books that have changed my life are the ones that I find useful for teaching or the writing of my own book. It is not that they are personally transformative, but professionally illuminative in some way. For example, Matthew Desmond's Evicted, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, Jill Leovy's Ghettoside, and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me all changed my life because they provided examples of how seemingly straightforward and simultaneously engaging a book could be, which helped me in my own writing process.
Favorite line from a book:
"Barrabás came to us by sea...." This is the first line of Isabella Allende's The House of the Spirits. Such a straightforward yet cryptic line. You have no choice but to keep reading. The rest of the book's lines keep you reading!
But in college it was the first line of Albert Camus's The Stranger. My best friend and I talked about and debated the proper translation and meaning for months. Should "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte" be "Mother died today," or should it be "Mama died today"? Would the emotionally detached and existentially minded protagonist have called her his "mama," or use the detached "mother." I was new to reading at the time and those discussions were so exciting for me. Later, I realized it is one of the most debated lines in literary translation. Forgive me for being so cliché!
Five books you'll never part with:
My grandmother's old musty copy of My Book of Bible Stories. I also have a very old copy of Guerilla Warfare by Ché Guevara that I bought from a man selling books from a plastic folding table in Havana in 1999. I was so scared to bring it back into the U.S. via Mexico because the embargo was still firmly in place and I thought that contraband would land me in jail or with a fine.
I also have a copy of bell hooks's Feminist Theory in which she wrote "To Stefano... To Critical Theory!" I will also never part with my first copy of Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space, with all of its marginalia from when I read it the first time and didn't understand a single word, to when I read it again and understood it as if it was common sense.
A book-related possession that I will never part with is a personally written postcard I received from Joan Didion after she read an article I gave her that I published on the front page of the school newspaper at UC Santa Cruz in 2001. It was about living in Budapest during Y2K and modeled (poorly) after her Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
The Grapes of Wrath. I want to feel those emotions for the first time again.
I wish I still had the open and imaginative mind needed to get lost in works by Isabel Allende or in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I think I am much more Clarice Lispector or Raymond Carver-minded now. But I look forward to it changing again.