alt.culture is a book that was published in 1995 by Guardian Books, a publisher connected to the lefty UK broadsheet, The Guardian. Written by Steven Daly and Nathaniel Wice, its subtitle, "An A-Z of the 90's, Underground and Online" tells you the basics about what the book's about.
Although it's now been superseded by websites fulfilling the same function (such as E2), and to a certain extent the internet itself, this book is a reference hypertext. Taking the form of an A-Z survey of an America-centric view of the 90's pop-Zeitgeist, small entries often linked to one another by means of coloured text indicating the presence of an entry of the same name, it explains who people such as Quentin Tarantino are and what Fruitopia is. It taking a semi-serious view of such material is it's genius, since you can actually begin to viscerally understand somehow how seemingly disparate phenomena actually were shaped by the same undercurrents of cultural force.
I first heard of the book when the Guardian published a free, shorter version with the newspaper. I was hooked immediately, although for some reason didn't find a copy until much later. I finally tracked down an elusive copy of it in 2001, and it's constantly re-read. Being written in the 1990's, it manages the feat of being both nostalgic (almost a decade old) and also contemporary. This blend of past and present, in some kind of po-mo time warp is what gives me a kind of enthralling experience when I read it. I love watching the Zeitgeist go by, and this bok is like a time machine. The near-past becomes the immediate present.
Giving the history of cultural phenomena and individuals that have shaped the confusing experience that was the last decade of the previous millennium, it takes its main focus to the idea of 'underground' culture, but also from fads and trends, political movements, clothing, indie rock, hip-hop and dance musicians, films and the birth of the internet as we know it.
This last item, the birth of the internet, is something that is surprisingly poignant. The screenshots of some of the material that is computer related is shown on a blocky, crappy GUI, and you can sense the public participation with the web is just beginning, but still under the main auspices of the professionally techie or university based user.
The music entries are equally fascinating, since grunge is still fairly new, and electronic music is beginning to appear over-ground in the US in a certainly more naive and new age tinged version of the post Criminal Justice Act UK variation and the mature underground of the European, Detroit and NY breeds.
When one of the questions we face in the 2000's, when trying to work out where our society is heading, is "what the fuck were the 90's about, man?" this book is a vital clue I'm glad to have found.
Book details: published by Fourth Estate, 1995, Steven Daly, Nathaniel Wice ; ISBN: 1857023781
A website, www.altculture.com accompanied the book, but seems to have died.