I sent off for a copy of For the Clerisy back in 2003 after reading a review in Timo Palonen’s zine Muuna Takeena from Finland. I’ve been a big fan ever since I opened that first envelope Brant sent me and FtC #49 (March 2003) slid out onto the kitchen table. That issue’s theme was mujokan, the sense of the impermanence of the world and of the dreamlike quality of one’s own existence. An image of the pop star Madonna was on the cover along with the following quote from Essays in Idleness by the 14th century Japanese Buddhist priest Kenkō:
“When I see the things people do in their struggle to get ahead, it reminds me of someone building a snowman on a spring day, making ornaments of precious metals and stones to decorate it, and then erecting a hall. Can they wait until the hall is ready to enshrine the snowman? How often it happens that a man continues to struggle in the hope of some success, even as the life left him (which he supposes to be considerable) is melting away like a snowman, from underneath.”
For the Clerisy’s mission statement has changed a bit over the years, but here is what it looked like in that first issue Brant sent me:
“The purpose of this zine is to entertain and inform members of the clerisy (i.e., people who read for the sheer pleasure of it). In A Voice in the Attic, Canadian writer Robertson Davies said, `The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books.´”
Nowadays the mission statement reads:
“The main purpose is to assure “unrepentant survivors of a previous time” that other solitary, deep readers really exist. I think providing reading suggestions is the most civilized thing I do.”
The meat and potatoes of FtC is book reviews, but book reviews with Brant’s special brand of snark, humor and wit. This is followed by a few reviews of old movies, a handful of letters from readers (usually about books and reading) and an occasional rant (usually about something that kept Brant away from his books, like shovelling snow or work).
Brant has published 86 issues to date, and thanks to him I’ve discovered quite a few fascinating books that I doubt I would’ve heard about anywhere else. Just from the last few issues of FtC I’ve added the following titles to the list of books that I’ll never get around to reading before I shuffle off this mortal coil: In the Land of the Blue Poppies by Frank Kingdon-Ward about plant hunting in Burma and Tibet in the 1920s and 30s; Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay; The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda by Yaroslav Trofimov; and Princes amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians by Garth Cartwright.
“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” -Charles Mackay
I recently managed to distract Brant from his books for a few minutes. Here’s what he had to say about zines and the reading life.
Q: How and when did you become interested in zines?
A: In the early 1990s, I was living in Okinawa. A friend in the US sent me a copy of Factsheet 5. I was so amazed that I had to try making my own zine about living in Japan. I mean, I thought if other people could write about such idiosyncratic topics and obsessions, I could write about expatriate life in Japan.
From 1994 to 1997 I did a zine about living in Latvia. The response was okay, but I think people in the US didn’t like paying international postage to send me their zine.
Q: How and when did you become interested in books and reading in general?
A: I’ve always read everything – books, magazines, the backs of cereal boxes – from the time I was a little kid. I don’t remember not being able to read.
Q: How many books have you read in 2015?
A: As of December 11th: 108. Big dive when the school year began in late August.
Q: How do you find the time to read so many books?
A: I watch little television. I procrastinate DIY around the house because doing chores cuts into reading time. Hey, it’s a no-brainer to choose between yardwork and reading all six of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, my one impressive reading achievement of the summer of 2015. Next summer my goal is to degrade the yard from “eyesore” to “disgrace of the block,” while reading Trollope’s six Palliser novels.
Q: Where do you get your books? From libraries or bookstores?
A: Almost all of my books are bought at used book sales of libraries in Western New York. In the past I liked having books around, but more recently I feel I don’t want them around the house. After I finish them or decide I’m never going to read them, I cull ruthlessly and donate them back to libraries. My long-term goal is to read all the books I own now – probably about 3 years of reading – and then depend on libraries.
Q: When and why did you start publishing For the Clerisy?
A: In the early 1990s, I thought it would be easy to write reviews of books that I had been reading. Also, the desktop computer and copier made producing a zine easier. I doubt if I would have created a zine if I had had to do it with a typewriter, stencils, and a mimeograph machine.
Q: Have you published any other zines in the past?
A: No, but the zine has changed a lot. It used to be about life as an expat. Then for a long time it was pretty long book reviews. Now it has short reviews. I publish more irregularly now because my time is very tight (I teach English as a Second Language in the evenings during the school year). I’ve been keeping a daily morning journal since late October and this is cutting into my “writing for the zine” time.
Q: How many copies do you print of each issue?
A: Only about 25 – about 20 to the mailing list, the rest for requests.
Q: Do you think zines are an important alternative to mainstream publications or just an amusing hobby?
A: For me, it’s just a hobby, with the possible medico-psychological benefit of warding off brain rot by writing expository prose.
Q: Do you have any favorite zines?
A: Arthur Hlavaty’s Nice Distinctions and Derogatory Reference, found at eFanzines. He’s a professional writer and editor. His ability to write concisely – really pithy – paints me green with envy.
Q: You went pdf only for a while. Why?
A: I had the cockamamie idea that I would save money and be really post-modern-a-go-go if I went to computer produced and distributed only. Response went down to about zilch. Plus, I didn’t like producing just for an electronic document. There’s something about it being on paper that makes the whole process (though I write it “on the computer”) seem more real to me. I mean, the zine exists in somebody’s stack of papers or in a genuine library somehow, somewhere.
I also think that people like the portability of zines – they can read them on the bus or plane or in a waiting room. (I was reading an Irish zine at the doctor’s office this morning. Guy sitting across from me looked up from his phone a couple of times. I’m not sure what confused him more: the giant letters in English (LOSERDOM) on the cover or the flashy green and yellow twine -ed.)
Q: Have you thought about digitizing your zine and putting it on eFanzines for posterity?
A: This is a good idea that I need to think about.
Q: What do you imagine is in store for the future of zines?
A: I think there will always be people who like mail. They like producing something to send, and they like receiving mail. There will always be such activity for the same reason we have people into calligraphy, weaving, or any other so-called fringe hobbies.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add that my crummy questions didn’t cover?
A: Well, rising postage rates may drive more people out of making paper zines. But if we always have among us people pursuing ascetic lifestyles – like monks – some people somewhere can and will be making a paper zine.
For a copy of the latest issue of For the Clerisy, send “the usual” (a zine, donation or letter) to: Brant Kresovich, PO Box 404, Getzville, NY 14068-0404, USA.
Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1955