Read or Regret, Vol. I: Hard Truths and Unshakable Horrors

Since I first started reading comic books as a kid — most memorably, a dusty stack of 1970s-era Captain Americas and Spider-Mans I inherited from my sister’s best friend — my obsessive nature always sends me sifting through any stash of old books or magazines that I encounter.

A month or so back, for example, I unearthed a copy of The Soul of America (1986) — Esquire‘s state-by-state look at life in 1980s America. A Ken Kesey essay on rodeo culture in Kansas is what prompted me to buy the book, but after paging through the table of contents some more, I discovered a story written by Lynn Darling titled “True Blue.” The story, which looks at the demise of the famed National Works steel mill in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, is told from the vantage point of laid-off steelworker Falco Paterra. Darling traces Paterra’s career arc from part-timer at National Works to his eventual promotion to night-shift manager — a role he cherished. Darling tells of how Paterra’s demanding work schedule caused him to miss every holiday and his son’s games and his daughters’ dances. Later in the story, however, Paterra is demoted and relegated to janitorial work, before losing his job altogether. It’s a hard-truth story, but one that became typical given the omnipresence of the steel industry — and its decline — in and around the city of Pittsburgh.

Which leads me to my point, the introduction of a new (occasional) column called Read or Regret — a collection of recommended nonfiction reading. It’s an attempt to catalog the worthwhile stories I find in mothballed magazines and books, as well as online. The following selections are surprisingly harmonious, especially considering I had no theme in mind. Unfortunately, the Darling story cited above is nowhere to be found online, hence the lack of a useful link. Last thing (a primer of sorts): Each headline links back to the original story; bylines link to a writer’s website when one is available; and each blurb is excerpted from the story itself.

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A Season in Hell by Mark Dery

On the wall at the foot of my bed, a poster displays the Faces Pain Scale, a series of earless, genderless everymen arranged, from right to left, in increasing degrees of agony. “The faces show how much pain or discomfort someone is feeling,” the caption explains. “The face on the left shows no pain. Each face shows more and more pain and the last face shows the worst pain possible. Point to the face that shows how bad your pain is right NOW.” The blurb adds, helpfully, that your face need not resemble the cartoon visages in the Pain Scale. (April 2012)

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What Happened to Etan Patz by Lisa R. Cohen

Thirty years ago, the 6-year-old boy disappeared from a Soho street. His father is now convinced he knows who killed Etan. But will the Patzes ever get a chance to learn the whole truth? (May 2009)

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Period Piece: Rammellzee and the End by Dave Tompkins

With Rammellzee, a single thought—often concerning the welfare of the alphabet—might span centuries: from Visigoth invasions to Panzer battalions to a subway tunnel beneath an African slave cemetery to a band from Buffalo called Robot Has Werewolf Hand. All between a burp and a nod, from a polymath who referred to himself as an equation. (April 2012)

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When the Town Stops Burning by Graham T. Beck

For 50 years, a fire has been raging in mining tunnels beneath Centralia, Pa. With the town mostly evacuated long ago, what’s left? Mostly journalists and other outsiders looking in. (April 2012)

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No Jobs Here by Jesse Pearson

An investigation into the blighted steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania and the Levi’s ad campaign that took place there, paired with a recounting of the author’s family history in steel work. (July 2011)

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The Final Comeback of Axl Rose by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Four years after disappearing from public view, Axl Rose is back on the scene, looking like a wax figure of himself, absorbing the crushing blows of Tommy Hilfiger, biting the legs of security guards, and gyrating, shrieking, and storming off stages across the land. (September 2006)

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Cheese — How Much Will Money Buy? by Joe Carducci

In old SST parlance, much evolved from surf-lingo if not coined by Black Flag, the Descendents, or the Minutemen themselves, “cheese” was a kind of false rock. We used it mostly in relation to metal, as in cheese-metal, but it was clear by 1982 that what had been interesting punk-related rock and roll termed new wave was also devolving into similarly processed, industry-friendly shuck and jive. (August 2011)

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Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly

On the 22nd of September I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? I said I believed I could. (1887)

(Photograph: William Bailey, aka Axl Rose, booked by the Lafayette Police Department in Indiana, circa 1982.)