ON READING AND OTHER THINGS
Charles Yao is our Type Reader for August
When he wears his working man clothes, Charles is the Director of Intellectual Talent at The Lavin Agency, a speakers bureau. Some of his speakers include Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Teju Cole, Steven Pinker, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. He is also the Publisher and Art Director of Little Brother, one of Type's best-selling and beloved independent art and lit magazines. Little Brother recently won a National Magazine Award for Jess Taylor's story, Paul. The next issue (themed around snacks) is out in the fall of 2015.
What book(s) are you reading right now?
When Surface Was Depth by Michael Bracewell, Open City by Teju Cole, Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, Black Music: Four Lives by A.B. Spellman, The New York School Painters and Poets by Jenni Quilter.
Your favourite prose authors?
Two spring to mind. First, Richard Price. All the praise he gets for how he's the best dialogue guy around—it's true! But the books hold together, you know? It's not just show-offy cop-talk verisimilitude or tough-guy street slang, faithfully rendered. The books work on so many levels, in terms of characters, plot, atmosphere, even social commentary.
And Zadie Smith. Every one of her books—heck, every one of her characters, every one of her sentences—is like a ten out of ten.
A few years back at an IFOA event, I was getting Zadie Smith's autograph, and I decided to ask who her favourite rappers were. But she misheard me. She thought I asked who her favourite writers were, and she looked, rightfully, bored and annoyed. When I reiterated my question—punching up the enunciation!—she got a big smile on her face and, without missing a beat, wrote this list of names into my copy of On Beauty: Kanye West, Jay-Z, Eminem, Biggie, and KRS-One.
What is the first book you remember loving?
In the Skin of a Lion. I read it for class in first year university—late, I know—and something clicked. I thought it was beautiful and mystifying.
The other important book, the first one I ever bought to just, like, read, was Girl with Curious Hair. I picked it up from The World's Biggest Bookstore, also during first year, and I was probably just killing time, waiting to meet a friend. The cover looked cool. And there was a story about Jeopardy! and one about David Letterman, easy pop culture stuff that was already familiar to me. It was like a gateway book.
Here's the thing. Books weren't a big part of my life growing up. We didn't have English language books just lying around the house. There wasn't anything to casually reach for or discover or inherit. And high school didn't exactly instill any love for literature into me; if anything, it was the opposite. We had to read The Chrysalids every year (which can't be right, though that's what I remember) and they'd hand out these Shakespeare paperbacks that fell apart the second you opened them. It was baffling and dreadful. It wasn't until my late teens that I got seriously into books in a big way. It wasn't an explicit self-betterment regiment. I wasn't trying to make up for lost time. It's just that reading books, suddenly, became something I wanted to do.
Your favourite poets?
John Ashbery. He's a singular artist the way that, say, Ornette Coleman, or Dylan, or Diane Arbus, or the Wu-Tang Clan are. The guy's a genre onto himself.
Has an art book ever had an impact on your life?
The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston. Really, any of his books. Eggleston takes colour photos of banal scenes, like a white rotary phone on the floor, a painted sign that says “peaches,” or the back of a woman's head at a diner, and invests them with this, to me anyway, near spiritual glow. If you spend an hour flipping through his work, the world will for sure look just a little more vivid—lit up, so to speak—the next time you venture out.
Do you read on public transportation?
For a few years, I had an hour-long commute to class, and the only upshot was that it gave me two hours of solid, uninterrupted, perfect-condition reading every single day. The subway is like a machine for reading.