Seth Fein and Justine Bursoni are cultural powerhouses. They founded and own Smile Politely, an independent, online, culture magazine covering the Champaign-Urbana scene in Illinois. They are also two of the cluster of people behind the spectacular Pygmalion Festival, bringing a concentrated burst of music, tech, lit, arts and crafts to the city for a glorious weekend each fall. Justine acts as Owner and Producer of Made Fest, a two-day outdoor curated marketplace that’s part of the festival, and Seth founded Pygmalion and fills the role of Producer now. Seth was outed by his supposed friend and colleague, Caleb Curtiss, as being a good candidate for this series where I talk to non-readers. It wasn’t long before I realized I had a terrific opportunity to talk to two “non-readers” at once, when Seth’s wife joined the discussion as well. I’ll skip the part about Justine and I realizing we grew up going to the same shitty diner as adolescents, and get right on to the reading or lack thereof.
Seth Fein: I suck at reading. =)
Justine Bursoni: Hi! My name is Justine and I blow at picking up a book.
Jac Jemc: I'm thrilled to talk to you guys. I like your tone. Aggressively honest about not reading, and not giving any of the fucks.
JB: Yes, I usually give no fucks in life.
JJ: OK, Justine, you jumped right into the social media mix and said that the two of you "actively don't read." Can you explain this phrase? Do you mean you have a thought, like, "Maybe I'll read a book!" and then tell yourself, "Don't do it!"?
JB: Although I don't actively tell myself "don't do it" — I pretty much do by purchasing a book on my e-reader and then never getting around to reading it. With that said, I have read three books this year. During two weeks while we were on vacation in Mexico. It was the first time in five years that I was able to accomplish that. Last we (Seth and I) read a book on vacation or that I finished — was in 2010 when we were in Mexico (again!) — we read and both finished the Hunger Games trilogy. Maybe Mexico is the secret to me reading again. I read part of Roxane Gay's book + Caleb's chapbook + Matthew G Frank's book — loved all three and then never picked them back up to finish. I suck. Don't tell Caleb. I think when I say I "actively don't read," I mean that I get part way through and then never get around to it again. Leave it on my bedside, see it sitting there, mean to pick it up again, and don't.
SF: I don't think it's Mexico, Justine. I think it's just time away from the day to day grind. But that's the thing — I love my job. We own a small company that develops and promotes a multi-disciplined festival each year. We publish a culture magazine that has a really strong readership here in Champaign-Urbana. We book tours for bands. We create websites and branding for small companies. We promote shows at one of the best small indie rock rooms you can dream up. So, it's not like I dread Mon - Fri. In fact, I dread the weekend more. I love to work, because our work is straight up FUN.
JJ: Sounds like your lack of reading is just a byproduct of having other stuff to do. But does it even matter if the not-reading is active or passive?
SF: I don't think it matters. I see it like a job, in some ways. Either you sit down and do it, or you don't. If you are dedicated to it, you will reap the benefits. But that's the thing, if reading feels like work, you should probably quit. I'm not a good quitter, so that's why I never really pick up a book to begin.
JB: If the book doesn't captivate me right from the get go, I'm out. IMMEDIATELY. I want to know that I'm investing in something that is worth my time. Especially since it seems to be precious these days.
JJ: Do you mean that you don't read books, specifically? Or do you not read magazines, the internet, nothing? Why do or don't those other things count?
JB: I've never been one to read magazines. Or the internet. I merely look at photos and images — perhaps it is because I am photographer. If the images aren't compelling, I couldn’t care less about the text. Seth and I also own an online magazine, Smile Politely, and I haven't read a single thing on it since I left as a writer. It's kinda sad actually. I guess I would say that I do read people's posts + keep up with those that I love and care about. Or if something is on the internet that really intrigues me or interests me, I will painfully try to digest the words.
SF: Justine, you haven't read a single fucking thing in Smile Politely? You are fucking fired. That's horse shit.
JJ: Why don't you like reading books?
JB: I used to love reading! I still love the feel of books in my hand, even though I have an e-reader. I think college fucking burnt me out on being forced to read bullshit and having to write a paper on the bullshit + then needing to edit my own bullshit. That is why I think I fell in love with art — I could take in all the images I loved and then hear stories about their meaning and not have to overthink it.
SF: I still love reading books. And I read two when we were on vacation, and it still has the same effect on me. So, to say I am not a reader is a bit hyperbolic on my part. But at the same rate, if I LOVED to read books, I'd do it all the time, and I don't. So I guess I don't like reading them — especially when I am home and doing the day to day. I graduated from UIUC with a degree in Narrative Rhetoric. So, I did the program. I wrote stories. Most of them were drivel. Two were OK I guess, I think. And I read. And read. And read. From grade school through college, I'd say I read more than the average American kid. My parents were both English majors. We read all the time. After college, I just kind of stopped. And I think it's because I am so motivated by the professional career we've built for ourselves running Pygmalion Festival, publishing Smile Politely, booking tours, and now, raising a family with Justine. Things have to take precedence. Reading books isn't at the top of my list. That said, I spend a lot of time reading our magazine, and reading a lot of articles in magazines, and yes — here and there, some poetry that Caleb recommends, usually.
JJ: I'm interested in the idea of college burning people out on reading. It's not your job to fix the system, but I wonder if there's a way to educate that sends people off into the world craving more reading, rather than thinking, "Thank god I don't have to read another boring-ass book and write a research paper I don't even really believe in." Any ideas on a better way?
SF: Well, a discussion about American education and the way we fund schools and how we teach our kids would take hours. Needless to say, as a society, we are failures, across the board, for the most part. It's teachers that make learning fun and interactive, and not the source material. When you pay teachers low level poverty-esque wages to "teach" our kids in a babysitting environment, this is the end result. A bunch of non-readers. You ever hear that Bill Hicks bit about reading? It's one of the best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwkdGr9JYmE
JB: Student based reading assignments? I don't know the answer to that loaded question. :) I do know that I once had a professor who assigned 150 pages of reading a week and the readings were predominately articles that he wrote. It was fucking awful and difficult to critique since you couldn't really argue him. I barely remember high school reading — but, I do know that I used Cliff's Notes here and there.
JJ: How do you run a lit and music festival without reading?
JB: HAHAHA. Touche. Caleb runs the lit fest — we just help assist in that being possible with having the Music Fest aspect being solidly in place. And for the music part, you can just listen to what is out there. I don't read reviews on music. I am fairly confident that Seth participates in this to some level though. I go and see what is out at the record store or the internet — press play and if it sucks, I stop there. And if I love it, I'll buy it on vinyl.
SF: Well, like Justine says — Caleb programs the Lit Fest with Jodee Stanley and Matt Minicucci. It was never something that I was going to be able to do, based on my lack of current knowledge about the scene, and because in the end, it's not really something that you can monetize with relative ease. Sadly, our culture doesn't place much of an emphasis on reading fiction and poetry, so the pool of support is pretty shallow. Our partnership with Ninth Letter is what allows Pygmalion to bring in such amazing authors to read during the festival. But, over time, with help from people like Caleb and Matt, we think we can change that. Not just financially, but just in terms of promoting literacy and the importance of reading.
JJ: What books have you enjoyed? What are some of them? You can go the traditional route and tell me what your favorite book is, but you can interpret that whatever way you like: what's stuck with you the most or what was most enjoyable in the moment or whatever other factor you use.
JB: I have happened to fall in love with post-apocalyptic novels. But there are so few out there. Well, good ones that is. I love The Road, The Handmaid's Tale, Station Eleven (one of three that I read on vacation), obviously Hunger Games, etc. I'm having a hard time getting through The Stand. Just too descriptive and I'd say overly descriptive in an unnecessary way.
SF: My favorite book might be Native Son, by Richard Wright. Or Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers? He was a professor of mine in college, and that one stopped my heart, figuratively speaking. I've read a ton of Mark Twain, and it's hard to put anything above a story like “Cannibalism in the Cars,” I think. Or reading the script to Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night. I could go on and on, but those stand out at the moment.
JJ: Are there books that you’ve heard about recently that you’re interested in reading? What are they? Why?
JB: More of the above. I got a list from a friend in Austin, TX of others that I would probably enjoy because she's into the same genre.
SF: I feel like reading Infinite Jest would be something I want to do. David Foster Wallace and I went to the same high school, so there's an emotional component to thinking about that challenge. I own it. But when I look at it, my brain short circuits, and I click on Deadspin instead, watch a weird sports highlight, and then get back to work for the most part. It takes dedication to read something like that, and I don't think I have it in me at the moment. I feel like I'd need to lock myself in a cabin for a week by myself to manage that.
JJ: Do you think that you do something else that takes the place of reading, like in the time that otherwise reading might happen? Or that satisfies you in a similar way to how reading satisfies others?
JB: Scanning images, gardening, running two businesses, AND SLEEPING because we have a son that robs us of that on a daily basis.
SF: The Pygmalion Festival takes 11 months to complete each year, on top of booking tours for Damien Jurado, managing the rest of the company, and still finding time to pursue hobbies like cooking, playing sports (ugh — I need to commit myself again), and just meeting people and talking with them over a bottle of gin or a pot of coffee and some cigarettes. Beyond that, yeah — I just want to be able to soak up these next 15 or so years with our son. The very idea that there will come a time that I don't get to see him every day is harrowing already. So, that's what displaced reading for me. Other interests.
JJ: Is there anything you miss about reading or think you might be missing out on? Do you regret not reading more or are you cool with it? Do you want to read more? Why or why not?
JB: I wish I read more. I feel like all the cool kids are doing it and that I'm probably missing out on great conversations that I remember loving to have in high school.
SF: I don't have any regrets. I've read enough for me to at least feel like I am a "reader." I'm just on hiatus I think. What I miss is the fantastical element of feeling as though I am alive inside of someone else. You don't get that from anything else. Not movies. Not music. Not even theater. You only get that from reading novels. And that's what I miss.
JJ: Thanks so much for these very candid responses. The secondary part of this is totally optional: Any interest in reading a book with me that falls outside of your standard categories and talking about what you do or don’t like about it? I know that’s a big time commitment, so no pressure. I’m also open to you picking a book and I’ll read it with you and tell you what I do or don’t like. Either way might be fun!
JB: Ohhhh, I'm intrigued. Yes? At least, here we go — I say yes and then... ??? ;) But intrigued and willing nonetheless!
SF: Oh Justine — such a damned pushover. She won't read that fucking book. I mean, maybe she will now because I am saying she won't, and it will just be out of spite. We love to spite each other. That's our favorite pastime I think? Or holding hands and making each other laugh. Anyhow, hell no I'm not committing to reading a book. That's nothing against you. But by this age, and with all of the people in my life that have said — "Hey, read this: it will change your life" — and with the amount of times I've said I would and then didn't, I'm just honest about where I am with reading at the moment. But I am about to start reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. My goal for the next 35 years of my life is to do my part in helping to solve some of the reasons why we can't, as humans, seem to get past inequality and find a true post-racial resting place. I'm not naive. It won't ever fully be solved, but I want to die knowing that I did my best to listen to those who have been marginalized, and try to learn from them and be a better ally.
JJ: I'd totally be up for reading The New Jim Crow! Let me know if you get around to reading it, and we can continue our talks!
SF: Oh shit — I didn't realize we could choose the book? Yeah, if we can do The New Jim Crow, I'd be into that. Is this publishing on Hobart? If it is, can we somehow make fun of Burch in a significant way?
JB: Since we can sync our iBooks together, maybe I will read The New Jim Crow as well. Considering it is also very relevant to today's state of affairs.
SF: So, when does this publish? And where? And when do we start reading this book? Fuck. READING.
JJ: Go ahead and get started! I have to get my hands on a copy, but I'll catch up! As for Burch: He pushed for more of these, and I bet he won’t even read this book with us. Punk.
To find out how our reading assignment went, stay tuned for "Non-Reader Spotlight: Seth Fein and Justine Bursoni, Part 2."