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Letters to strangers

Detail from a liquor advertisement, n.d.

Excuse this, another in this ongoing series of lengthy excerpts — but so deservedly in this case: Stephen Burt’s loving tribute to Timothy Alborn on the London Review of Books’ blog. Alborn, history professor, Harriet Records founder, and publisher of Incite! is an example that this writer, and Ply more generally, is consciously echoing:

Alborn’s writing at its finest is short-form, impressionistic, non-technical criticism at its finest, with jokes. Pittsburgh singer Karl Hendricks sounded better solo than with his first rock band because ‘Like some other people I know, he’s much easier to take when he’s in a room by himself than when he’s surrounded by friends.’ Incite! #3 (1987), written just after Alborn finished his first year of graduate school at Harvard, recommends

listening to ‘All Hung Up on What Used to Be’ by the Flies and pretending it doesn’t apply to you… hiding from your friends by working with your enemies, overworking until you’re not sure anymore which ones are which, and avoiding the stench of it all by putting the needle down.

As Incite! went on it became less slapdash and more intricate, closer in look and spirit (though not very close) to illustrated Victorian miscellanies. Most things that Alborn reviewed were related to music – singles, albums, live performances – but he also examined the Slinky toy, the semi-academic British magazine Anarchy, dugongs and United Airlines.

Fanzines were a kind of reviewing, but they were also letters to strangers, distinguished by informality and sincerity, by enthusiasm and relative brevity, and by the anti-elite attitude of punk rock, even when the individual zine writers favoured far softer sounds. Sometimes strangers wrote back, and sent their own zines, or became contributors to Alborn’s. Incite! #27 (1994) took as its theme ‘epistolarianism’, life led through the post:

One of the perks of my job is that I get money to travel to distant libraries and read other people’s mail from one or two centuries ago… People should read these and remember why letters are better than phone calls or fanzines or just about anything else.

Actually I think I decided the first printed issue of Ply will be the second issue, because printing would only ruin the perfect, tardy-to-the-point-of-nonexistent quality of Ply No. 1.


  1. Tim / 11 August 2012

    That would be me… Charmed, I’m sure, to quote Long Hing Legs; M. Sachs (and anyone else) feel free to email me since I can’t seem to figure out how to email you and I have yet to cross the epistolarian bridge known as Twitter (almost as treacherous as the bridge described in Addison’s ““The Vision of Mirzah” (1711)). I may soon be blogging straight out of Lehman College, but until then, everyone should check out The Hitmen’s first single, “She’s All Mine” (1981, a mere 270 years post-Addison).

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