By Evan Wood
What The Hell is St. Louis Thinking? or WTHSTL, is a book based on a bizarre idea. Henry Goldkamp, the one who asked the book’s titular question and the creator of the project behind it, explains in a letter at the beginning of the book that: “I wanted St. Louis to be the first city to write a book.”
It’s the sort of idea that you might have in the shower, tell a friend about over coffee, spend three and a half hours nailing down details of, and then never act on. Except that Henry actually did it.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Henry began working on this book in fall of 2013 by placing typewriters all throughout St. Louis and encouraging anyone who happened upon them to type their thoughts and submit them in a box by the typewriter. The effort garnered national attention from major outlets like NPR and Time.
In April of 2014, Henry launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise money to cover the cost of printing the book. Once the campaign met its goal of $6,400, production began. The book will be released on November 22.
According to Henry, it is an art book, but it has elements of other genres.
“It’s certainly poetic,” says Henry. “But maybe it’s not poetry.”
Out of many submissions, Henry curated the ones that are printed in the book, and structured them.
“Part one is very negative,” says Henry.
The first entry reads: “I’m unhappy. Big Surprise.”
According to Henry, that is meant to set the tone for the book’s first section. A pervasive feeling of negativity and angst carries throughout these pages, ranging from profoundly tragic memories to everyday frustrations. “I do not have the patience to talk to one more stranger about the weather,” reads part of one entry.
“There’s a lot of questions in part two,” says Henry.
There is also a lot of reflection, ambition, and thoughtfulness in this section. There are eight pages in a row where some form of the word "think" shows up. On a spread, one side reads reads: “Thinking is the greatest gift.” While the page opposite reads: “Thoughts are overrated.”
Then there’s part three, which Henry says is meant to be more positive. In every section, a good number of the entries talk about St. Louis. But in part three people seem to have the most positive things to say about it. “Some say Fly Over Country I chose to live here,” reads one entry, printed exactly as it was written on the typewriter. The book trades off between images of the actual sheets of paper, where you can see the creases and wear on the paper that sat in the public typewriters, and pages laid out with the original words typeset in a sleek, serif font.
Like most art books, the conventional rules of reading the pages in chronological order need not apply. You can open the book to any page and find compelling, relatable reflections from the Gateway City. Many of the entries don’t mention St. Louis by name, but even the ones that do often have a universal quality. One entry is written by someone with thoughts of moving.
“I believe it is time for me to move on from St. Louis,” it reads. The writer goes on to describe St. Louis as an abusive boyfriend. It ends: “Give me a reason to stay St. Louis. Just one and I will never leave.”
The book is laid out thoughtfully and structured soundly. If you read each entry in order from start to finish, you begin assigning the anonymous writers faces and voices in your head. As it goes on, the voices seem to blur together. That’s not a bad thing, though. The thoughts in this book are as individual as snowflakes, but their collective weight contains a broader perspective. After you finish the book, you actually feel that it was written by a single author—a deranged genius, probably.
Beyond being an art book with moments of poetic insight, WTHSTL is the disjointed, stream-of-consciousness autobiography of a storied, polarizing city. Regardless of where you’re from, if you’ve lived enough to walk down a city street or drive your car from point A to point B, you can relate.
What The Hell is St. Louis Thinking is available on amazon.