Why Camp Books?

Susan Sontag in a Bear Suit, by Annie Leibovitz.

Susan Sontag in a Bear Suit, by Annie Leibovitz.

The “Camp” of “Camp Books” unfolds in meaning almost daily: it’s a permissive and elastic word that I love thanks to Susan Sontag, and for reasons that go far beyond Susan Sontag’s 58 “Notes on Camp” (1964). Years ago as now, Sontag’s words ring true for me as a rallying cry for tenderness and exuberance in spite of a harsh world:

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy.[…]

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of "character." . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as "a camp," they're enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

57. Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.[…]

Two other aspects of camp that I love: as it comes into being in Sontag’s essay, camp style is defined by lists—a neverending array of things like books, movies, paintings, articles of clothing, people—and is a word that’s always creating new relationships between the past and the present. “Of course, the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it,” Sontag writes in note 30, by the time she’s already proposed an extensive list of what is camp (i.e. Art Noveau) and what isn’t (i.e. William Blake, “who inspired Art Noveau”). If time and distance are part of camping, there is only an increase in what we might find camp—or use when camping—from the junk heap of history.

Anyone can feel the emotions of enjoyment, appreciation, love, and tenderness that Sontag repeatedly invokes to describe the creation of camp. So much of what it means to me to bring together historical materials documenting stories that have long been ignored by the brutal, straight world, begins with that camp feeling of overwhelming excitement and emotion and appreciation. (Sontag: “the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.” That’s me.) As a form of reading, even as a performance or embodiment of what’s read, camp is how I like to commune with the past and call into the present its influence. As a reading practice, camping makes the most of the situation. Where irony feels lonely and satire often ends up sounding self-righteous, camp as I’ve inherited it lets me get seriously involved but play around at the same time. It’s like Christopher Isherwood says of the high camp of ballet and baroque art in The World In The Evening (1954): “You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously.”

Since the sense of “camp” Sontag celebrates has been around for over a century now—at least since 1909, but that might go earlier among speakers of polari— I know I’m not alone. Camp works well with books, has been preserved within many books, many photos and other objects, maybe above all in scrapbooking & collage, but for me camp is always a grasp or lunge outside of the object itself to what really matters, the people involved all around it, authors, illustrators, printers and bookbinders who imbued it with their magic; the sellers and librarians and collectors and readers who mix in something of their own spirit with each handling.

Camp reading extends that serious caring for the past to the people involved in the survival of stories on an emotional level, not treating the past and present as a binary but rather a boundary to be blurred. I enjoy camp because I enjoy keeping crowded company. That’s mainly why I’m starting Camping Out as a blog. It’s a holdall for all kinds of behaviours and remnants of what I think of as camp, and all of the people in my life, living and dead, who exhibit them and nourish the work I do with Camp Books. It’s a place to add to my ongoing work in bringing together materials related to queer and gender non-conforming life stories, and widening access to those materials.

Something that I would add to Sontag’s list of “Notes” is the resourcefulness and resiliance inherent in what’s camp. It’s about survival. Your budget doesn’t matter and neither does your education. And when you look at the harsh roads trodden by many of the drag queens and queers and outlaws who have been associated with camp performance and camp exuberance, it’s impossible not to see that more than just a mode of sentimentality, it’s a strategy for surviving. Camp is not at all mutually exclusive to the pain and anger that many LGBTQ+ people feel about both past and present stuggle, but it’s the decision to survive in a way that makes room for the experience of joy.

One thing about a life spent with books is that behind any given book there’s a whole host of people involved, and a whole lotta movement. Books travel well, and the people that work with them follow. I want to try to capture that here, how much I ramble around for the sake of the stories that move me, and the hope of finding more. I find stories I love in a lot of places around the world: libraries, archives, galleries, museums, bars, clubs, restaurants, living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, parks, beaches, forests, mountains. I end with the great outdoors because, ultimately with Camp Books I think there’s a point at which I want to reach a convergence of each meaning of the word, including its most common meaning, as in to pitch a tent or make a settlement outside in nature. Otherwise, why the log font for the Camp Books logo?

Even in that effort I’m not alone. Last month while digging through heavenly heaps of paper and ephemeral materials at Bolerium Books in San Francisco I found a series of newsletters printed from the summer of 1985 to the summer of 1986. At the heading of the newsletter for the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of Camping Women, was a beautiful log font announcing its outdoor activities: group backpacking trips to the Yosemite wilderness, picnics a McNear’s Beach Park in San Rafael, camping on Angel Island, sage gathering trips in the Eastern Sierra. It’s a DIY publication made by kindred spirits, and now that I know about it, know to look for it, there’s the open possibility to find more. History works for me on an intuitive and imginative level: when I intuit a kindred spirit I can imagine the places and the people among whom an archive might survive, even in scraps, and find it. Part of the trouble of working with groups who have been marginalised and silenced is not only the reality of the silence, but the fantasy it produces, the way it spreads: the idea that nothing survives at all. But so much does remain. I’m trying to overcome that obstacle with Camp Books and with Camping Out, trying in my campiest way possible to channel the voices and the stories and the feather boas and the log fonts that I think should be given more airtime by following the paper trail that leads me to them.

—Brooke Sylvia Palmieri

Brooke Palmieri