My Love Affair With Books: Self-Education From Greaseball to Street Intellectual

Part I: 1968 to 1989

Bruce Lerro with one of his latest books

Only sissies read books

When I was growing up there were no books to speak of in our house. My Italian-American parents were middle class: my father was a self-made commercial artist; my mothers’ father was a shoemaker; and my father’s father was a bartender who deserted the family. In other words, we were middle class without the culture that usually comes from being middle class. My neighborhood sandlot baseball friends were working class and the Catholic school I went to was working class. Most of the parents of the kids I hung around with were either firefighters or cops – not many book readers here. My love affair with books began at 20 years old and is inversely proportional to my interest in school. When I was in school, I had no interest in books. It was only after I dropped out of community college that I became interested in reading.

“Now dat’s the blues” says Fat George of Rivoli Records

I was a great follower of rhythm and blues music throughout my teenage years, listening to the black stations, WWRL and WLIB in New York. I worked in music stores for a couple of years which first made me appreciate the blues. After I quit school and moved out, I began to look for books on the blues in local bookstores. I remember going to Yankee Stadium one weekday night and finding myself sitting in the upper deck reading a history of the blues while barely looking up at the game. Something was changing.

“Looking Backward” and my socialist baptism

In early 1970 one of my co-workers in a wholesale music store invited me to move in with him and his friend who lived in Brooklyn, a couple of subway stops from Manhattan. My co-worker, Bob Bady, was clearly from an upper-middle class background. One time on a break he said to me he was a socialist. I said I didn’t know what that meant. He says “have you ever heard of Edward Bellamy’s book Looking Backward?” I said “no” and so he whipped out a paperback version and handed it to me. “Let me know what you think”, he said. I think he saw me as his personal project. Here I am, a greaseball with a pompadour reading a book about socialism. My friends and former teachers wouldn’t have believed it. After reading this book I knew I was a socialist. Bob dragged me to all the marches going on at the time and reading Bellamy’s book gave me a sense of where all this could lead.

My first heroes: James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Malcolm X

Because I lived so close to Manhattan and because I already worked in a music store in Times Square, I began to poke around in bookstores downtown, specifically the great Strand Bookstore and the 8th street bookstore in the West Village. By the following year, Bob had moved away to go to college, (probably graduate school) and so I was on my own in terms of reading. Given my past and present interest in the blues, it was a natural fit to gravitate toward black authors. I read James Baldwin, and two or three of Richard Wright’s books. But the book that was most riveting for me was Malcolm X’s autobiography.

Searching for mysteries without any clues: reading eclectically

I started out reading eclectically. I picked up psychology books, history books, books on philosophy, which I could not understand, and an abridged version of Das Kapital which I put down about 3 minutes after I pulled it off the shelf. I really did not know where to begin. I had no system. I read a little bit of Lenin but had no understanding of the relationship between Leninists, social democrats and anarchists. It wasn’t until I stumbled on GDH Cole’s History of Socialism that I began to put the pieces together.

I worked for UPS on the graveyard shift unloading trucks in Long Island City from 11pm to 3am. I read faithfully on all my breaks and on the train going to work and coming home. The other workers did not know what to make of me. My parents must have wanted to shake me and say “who are you and what have you done with my son”.

In and out of VISTA in seven days

Later that year I was accepted into VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program in Atlanta. On the bus for one of our tours, I cornered one of the presenters who seemed more radical. I expressed my reservations about VISTA which he confirmed by saying: “it’s all liberal bullshit.’ I knew I was at a crossroads. I really couldn’t go back to New York as it represented the old world.

About six months earlier I had met a young woman named Stephanie on the train on my way to work at the music store. Stephanie was visiting from Berkeley. She gave me her phone number and told me if I ever travelled to the West Coast that I would have place to stay. So when I left Atlanta, rather than return to New York I decided to hitchhike to Berkeley.

Busted in Topeka Kansas with “communist” material

On my way through the south I remember reading Ray Ginger’s biography of Eugene Debs. Travelling in that part of the country in 1970 was pretty dangerous for people who looked like me (perceived by others as a hippie,) so after experiencing both southern hospitality and southern hostility, I headed north on I-65, and then West on I-70. Some guy in the military gave me a ride to Topeka, Kansas where he was stationed. I was stuck on a ramp onto I-70 because it was illegal there to be on the interstate hitchhiking. After 6 hours of not moving and having a few beer cans thrown at me, I decided to take my chances and get on the interstate. I was not there for 10 minutes before a cop arrested me and took me to the jail. Before I went to my cell, the cop asked me to open up my knapsack. I was very nervous about this but not for the reasons you might suspect. He looked almost excited; anticipating that he would find out I had some pot, which I didn’t have. However, instead he pulled out three books: The Essential Lenin; The Writings of Che Guevara; and an anthology of writings by anarchists. He looked at the books, shook his head and then said “Just as I thought, ‘commuist’ agitator (intentional misspelling to capture his pronunciation). After about 6 hours in jail I decided to pay the $100 fine and get out of there. My books were not returned.

Cowhand intellectual in Eastern Oregon

On the road again a year later, I am travelling east on US-20 going from Corvallis Oregon, to Denver. I had met Ellie two weeks earlier when she picked me, along with two other guys up in her pickup truck. We stayed on her dad’s farm for a week – which I’m sure he was thrilled about. Anyway, she must have been looking for a way to get out of Corvallis and ran away with me to Denver after the other two guys left for the San Francisco Bay Area. Well, our hitchhiking through Eastern Oregon wasn’t going very well. Finally, as the sun was going down, two guys in a pick-up truck who looked like rednecks offered us a ride. We both hesitated but we were desperate, stuck in the middle of nowhere. They drove about two miles and then made a left on some dirt road. Not good.

These two guys start building a huge fire in the middle or what appears almost as a desert, and then they started drinking. We sit with them at the fire looking at the long cast shadows of the tree branches. Uh oh, is this the end? They only seem to want to talk to each other. Once it was in the neighborhood of 9 pm, we felt enough time had gone by to say we were going to bed. We put out our sleeping bags about a quarter of a mile away and tried to get some sleep. They were talking too loud for us to do that. So, I decided to go back to the fire and talk to them. One of them was so drunk he just fell asleep in the sand. Then the other one who looked like a cowhand began to talk to me.

I was amazed that he started talking about books to me and how lonely it was to not have anyone to talk to. He started talking about Marx. I couldn’t believe it. Then he asked me what I had read, which I was very careful about. He looked about five years older than I was so he must have felt he had the authority to tell me what to read. On the back of my road map I scribbled Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground; Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth”. I have since read all three, but every time I read one, I thought of him. What I really needed was a reference librarian to help me to prioritize my reading and in what order to read my favorite author’s books. What I was doing was unsystematic but my passion for reading was kindled and just kept going, and I figured that it would congeal later on.

Crashing at the Roosevelt Street Commune

Backtracking to my first hitchhiking adventure from VISTA, when I arrived in Berkeley from Atlanta ten days after I started, I found Stephanie’s house on Roosevelt Street. She was walking towards me talking to a friend. When she saw it was me she couldn’t believe it. We started jumping up and down together. She made good on her offer and I spent the next week crashing in her commune in a reconverted garage where I slept. The books around the house were what you would expect of a hippie household in 1970. A copy of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People on the coffee table was accompanied by Herman Hesse’s Damien on the kitchen table. Stephanie and her friends were more spiritual types than political. I went to one of her meditation weekly sessions which was open to the public. After the talk I asked her if you could be spiritual and a political radical at the same time. She answered carefully and said no. When I asked her why, she said that being spiritual meant no violence and that they couldn’t go together. I wasn’t satisfied with that and thought that they could be synthesized. A great deal of my reading and joining groups from council communism to neo-pagan Tree of Life groups was dedicated to making them work together even though everyone else must have thought I was nuts.

Telegraph Avenue and Moe’s Books

One of the first things Stephanie’s roommates insisted that I do is go to Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. The next day in the late morning I made a trip up there. Telegraph Avenue was then, as it was for many years, a “freak show” with all the positive and negative connotations that follow. I went into Moe’s and was floored by the variety of radical literature. After having read on the history of socialism, I was curious about anarchism and anarchists. Right on the counter, as if it was it were a best seller, were Kropotkin’s revolutionary pamphlets; a biography of Bakunin by EH Carr and James’s Joll’s book on the history of anarchism. Berkeley then was filled with grouplets of leftists all claiming to know the truth. In retrospect most of these groups were rigid and not very open to learning from each other, but for an eclectic like me just starting out, it was exhilarating to flit from group to group. Once I got a beat on the history of socialism, I knew what the centerpiece of my reading would be: socialism and radical history.

My nine-month six hours a day reading program

By this point I was in love with reading but could not imagine going back to school because of my bad experience with it. Also, I had no idea that I could find work which involved the kind of reading I was doing. So, I decided to develop my own reading program. I wanted to read more about socialism but I wanted to read in an interdisciplinary way. So I set up a program for myself, which usually had five categories of books from different disciplines. Besides socialism and radical history I read on psychology, philosophy, anthropology, mythology and the history of science.

I asked my parents if I could move back with them from the Fall of 1970 to the Spring of 1971 while throwing myself into my reading program. They said “ok”, hoping that a stay at home might allow me to become more “normal”. During that time, I would work for UPS unloading trucks at night. During the day I spent about 6 hours each day reading, taking notes and writing down my impressions. I did this from September to May. Every day I would take my books and notebooks to different libraries. In those days not all the old radical books were available in paperback. I remember reading Emma Goldman’s Living My Life in the Brooklyn Library every Tuesday afternoon before taking the train to Long Island City to work. My favorite place was to go to the 42nd Street Library in Manhattan and sit at those big oak tables and chairs. As I sat there it was hard not to feel like I was part of history.

I had a section in my reading program called “radical biographies” which included reading biographies of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Louise Michel, Enrico Malatesta, Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Serge, Alexandra Kollontai and Vera Figner. Another category was in psychology. I read the work of Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. I was also curious about philosophy. I wanted to read in this field, but wanted a socialist take on it. Maurice Cornford wrote a three volume communist introduction to philosophy, which clarified the difference between ontology and epistemology as well as the major schools within each field. I also became interested in Art History and tore through the four volumes of Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art.

Self-educational study group with neither carrots or sticks

In 1975 I spotted an ad for a reading group on Nietzsche in the local hippie newspaper, Open Exchange. I had read Thus Spoke Zarathustra but never dreamed anyone else would be interested in Nietzsche. To paraphrase Tammy Wynette, we liked Nietzsche when Nietzsche wasn’t cool: This was long before the postmodern rage over Nietzsche. I never met such a mix of people—a high school teacher, a printer, a carpenter and a welder. Together for a year we met at each other’s houses every two weeks and we tore through most of Nietzsche’s work in English. Every one of these folks was a self-disciplined, independent thinker who did the reading every week without any carrots or sticks. I remained friends with two of them for years, long after out group ended.

I have to say that one of the very best things about socialists is that we are, for the most part, self-taught. We read even when no one is forcing us. Many of the socialists I’ve met know more about history, economics and politics than many college instructors who had degrees in the field. We formed reading groups and studied together because it was important for the revolution that we did so.

Social Evolution as part of cosmic evolution

Throughout the mid 70’s, my focus continued to be radical theory and radical history. But by the late 1970’s it was clear that the wave of 60’s radicalism was fading and I became interested in larger issues. I thought that socialism needed to be grounded in something larger and evolutionary. A Marxist comrade of mine who was studying yoga under the disapproving eye of other comrades in our group felt the same way I did. He whispered to me I should study Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man. From here it was a short step to Henry Bergson, Lloyd Morgan and the emergent evolutionists and then to Bertalanffy’s General System Theory and the work of the little known Oliver Reiser, especially his book, Cosmic Humanism. This culminated in the work of Buckminster Fuller. I loved Utopia or Oblivion, Critical Path and Nine Chains to the Moon and I was amazed by how someone trained in the natural sciences and a military man (the U.S. Navy) could be a social visionary.

Western spiritual traditions

It was also in the late 70’s and early 80’s that I discovered Wicca. The Neo-pagan movement was well under way, largely a product of the women’s movement’s rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition. My favorite book at the time was Starhawk’s Spiral Dance, which pulled together pagan traditions along with a “how-to” guide in practicing magick. I never joined a group because I did not trust people to turn these practices into New Age mumbo jumbo. But I did develop a practice of my own. I’ve always found magick to be a very practical system for changing consciousness through the uses of imagery, music and dance.

I also became interested in esoteric spirituality and read books by and about Rudolf Steiner, Aleister Crowley, Dane Rudhyar for astrology and the work of Ouspensky and the Gurdjieff people. I knew all these traditions could not be easily integrated with a socialist perspective but I never gave up trying to bridge the worlds. I joined groups and participated in associations, never quite feeling at home anywhere, always being afraid of being “found out”.

“Shut-up and take off your clothes” — my 12-year life as an artist model

Throughout my 20’s, which were roughly during the 1970’s, I had worked as a proletarian, unloading trucks, driving a forklift and working as a page in the library. There was a deep division between what I was doing in my work life and my luxuriant growth in intellectual curiosity. After a crisis in which I left the Bay Area for three months, when I returned in the summer of 1978, I was determined that my work life should reflect more of my skills and interests than it had been.

As my relationship with my father began to improve in my late 20’s I “allowed” myself to admit that I really was interested in art. I began taking art classes at City College of San Francisco. This, of course, justified a twist in my reading towards the arts. One day in a figure drawing class the model did not show up. The art teacher started to pull out of the cabinet some materials for us do draw a still life. I went over to her and volunteered my services. “You will pose for the class?” she asked. I said “yes” and she said “of course, you can keep your clothes on”. I was having none of it and insisted that I be nude like all the other models we had had. She reluctantly agreed.

I posed for the class and had a great time – gestures, five-minute, then 10 minute than three 20 minute poses over three hours. At the end of the class the art teacher came up to me and said I was pretty good at it. The next time we had a model, I asked them what was involved in becoming a model. I found out you had to audition and that they had auditions twice a year. Two months later I auditioned for the San Francisco Models’ Guild and got in. For the next twelve years I worked all over the Bay Area – about five gigs a week. The pay was pretty good (by today’s standards, maybe $30 dollars per hour). Through it all I read on Muni buses and Bart trains to and from modelling gigs. One way or another, I managed to read my books on the average of about two hours per day.

Capitalist fundamentalism drives me back to college    

With the capitalist economy contracting by the early 1980’s, it was becoming more difficult to make a living as a model, along with teaching a Baseball For Beginners class that I offered through an alternative education newspaper. When I first got involved with my new girlfriend, she was very impressed by all the reading I had done, but then she started seeing possibilities for me. One time we were in Golden Gate Park and I was describing to her a table that I hand-wrote which contrasted the characteristics of ancient cities as opposed to industrial cities. She said to me something like, “you are wasting your knowledge on one person. You ought to be teaching”. I had been told this before but I dismissed it by mistakenly thinking that I needed a PhD to teach college. Besides, I hated school.

Anyway, Barbara kept up the pressure as only people in relationships can do. Finally, I stumbled upon Antioch University, which had a branch in San Francisco. The major draw for me was not just that it was a left-wing school, but that it gave me credit for prior life experience. That meant that if I went to school and took 9 units a quarter, I would have a Bachelor’s degree in a year. The cost of the school was reasonable so, I decided to do it.

Taking classes in psychology produced a crisis for me because I was expected to read “their” books. This conflicted with my own “real” reading program. I didn’t have enough time to do both. At first, I was conscientious and did all the required reading (this lasted only a couple of weeks) and ignored my own, real reading program. But I soon realized that I was so far ahead of the expected knowledge base in school that I could skim the readings because I had already read so much psychology on my own. This was a great relief to me. In one class I took on personality theory, I knew most of the material. Fortunately, the school was open to students doing directed studies. So I invented my own independent course, “Personality Theory And Social Class”. I did this kind of thing in other classes. For my class in Child Development I did a cross-cultural and historical comparison of childrearing practices.

Change of occupational plans: from shrink to college teacher

I started my college life thinking I would be an art therapist, but watching how much fun my developmental psychology teacher, Valita, was having changed my mind. I watched her animatedly talking about research, popping Pepsi after Pepsi, answering questions, being challenged and challenging us. In addition, the students in the class were older, working people, not like the students I was in class with during the day at the community college I dropped out of. This was a cool scene! I noticed on Valita’s syllabus that she had an MA after her name, not a PhD. So, I went up to her on the break and asked about it. Once she told me all you needed was a master’s degree, I thought to myself, “shit, I can do that”. I asked her if she was full-time and she said no, and said she didn’t want to be. I asked why and she said “I just want to teach students, I don’t want to get caught up in faculty politics. I go from school to school and it turns out to be full-time anyway. I just like it, me and the students”. I hugged her at the end of the class and thanked her for unintentionally providing me guidance.

So once I graduated in 1984 I enrolled in a master’s program, since I had come to realize that I could be a student and not abandon my real reading program and just continue it. At the master’s level there were only two teachers who gave me a run for my money: a developmental psychologist and a social psychologist.

Liberal arts universities had a reputation for grade inflation, so you didn’t have to do much work to pass the class. I got used to this and continued to read what I wanted. Well, the developmental psychologist I had for a directed study really tore apart the first paper I wrote. I was shocked and then I got mad. “I’ll show this mutherfucker” I thought to myself. The next paper I wrote was called Social Atomism in Developmental Psychology. It was a criticism of how the field of developmental psychology had a very liberal (rather than socialist) understanding of what it meant to be social. My teacher loved the paper and 18 months later after I graduated, I had it published in a radical psychology journal. One of the best things I got out of my undergraduate program was getting teachers to read what I had written. Having to write papers taught me how to write and, as it turned out, these became the seeds of my own later books and articles.

After four or five weeks of a course in social psychology, I approached a teacher who seemed to be a closeted Marxist. I expressed my frustration with bourgeois orientation to psychology and asked her if there were any Marxists psychologists. She told me about Klaus Riegel who made an argument that dialectical operations was a fifth stage of cognitive development beyond Piaget’s formal operations. More importantly, she told me about Lev Vygotsky and socio-historical psychology. One of the best things about being in school is getting help in orienting yourself to a field. Without Noelle’s help, it might have taken me years to find Vygotsky. But here she was giving me a reading list. I was a socio-historical psychologist all along, only I didn’t know it!

She also told me about Alexander Luria and his work showing the historical and social nature of perception, identity and cognition. Luria studied the transformation of peasants during the Russian Revolution and how their cognitive processes changed as they moved from the country to the city. In fact, Noelle encouraged me to travel to Nicaragua to make a similar study, since they were undergoing a revolution. While I never took up her suggestion, it didn’t stop me from making a special study of socio-historical psychology. Fortunately, the Communist Party in San Francisco had a bookstore regularly stocked with books coming from Russia that were translated into English and not easy to find elsewhere. I read the work of Leontiev, the work of S. L. Rubenstein, and Valsiner’s Developmental Psychology in the Soviet Union.

In 1986 I graduated with a master’s degree in psychology. The funny thing is I had no idea of what my grade-point average was until I got something in the mail after I graduated. I could have cared less. What mattered to me was the classroom dialogues and the chance to have an audience for my writing.

In Part II I will cover my teaching life as a “road scholar”, a “freeway flyer”, in which I established a dialectical relationship between teaching, writing and reading that I could never have imagined.

• First appeared in Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. He is a co-founder, organizer and writer for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.