Responding to ‘Billboard’: What Are Actually the Best Music Books of All Time?
In ancient times, councils and other quasi-legislative bodies met to determine which books should be included in a canon — a set of books considered authoritative and binding for the practice of a community — and which should be excluded. As you can imagine, most of these meetings were contentious, but when the winners emerged, their canon of texts ruled the day and became the standard, acting as a rule (which is the meaning of “canon”) for that community. Of course, many other texts were excluded, and those writings often formed the canons of other communities.
The creation of the Bible — and the process of canonizing the writings in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and later the entire collection that you can buy in a bookstore as “The Bible” — was a multi-layered, dynamic process. As a collection of writings authoritative for faith and practice, it is the most famous example of a canon.
But any anthology of English or American literature acts functionally like a canon, including writings that one generation of scholars believes represents the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” and excluding texts that don’t, in the minds of those scholars, live up to this standard. Compare the first edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature with the 16th edition of the same anthology, and you’ll find that some selections from the earliest volume have been dropped and many newer selections have been added. The beauty of the process of canonization is that it’s dynamic, though once a collection of writings is canonized the danger is that the canon itself becomes static, not allowing for expansion or for the addition of writings that enhance our understanding of already accepted writings.
Now, while the group of writers at Billboard magazine, which unveiled its list of “100 Greatest Music Books of All Time” on September 16, never considered that they were establishing a canon of music books. Their use of the phrase “the greatest of all time” raises many questions about their list.
First, is it really possible for anyone — or any group of writers — to come up with a definitive list of 100 greatest books or albums? Put another way, if confronted with paring down your music books library to only 100 books, could you do it? Would you keep Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s Hamilton: The Revolution and toss out Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues? What criteria would you establish to reduce your library to only 100 volumes?
Second, how does one determine the “greatest” books? What does that term even mean, anyway?
Even to say that these are the 100 “greatest music books of all time” begs the question about which are “the greatest.” (And that doesn’t even address the issue that “greatest” is a superlative adjective that can apply only to one noun.) Billboard’s writers include several recent autobiographies of rock musicians — including Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, Keith Richards’ Life (Dylan comes in at number one and Richards at number three), Rod Stewart’s Rod: The Autobiography, Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear, and Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees: A Memoir. This list is wildly uneven, and you can certainly make the case that neither Allman’s nor Simon’s nor Stewart’s memoirs belong on any “best music books of all time” list because they are poorly written, tiresome narratives that are more self-indulgent than informative.
Third, how do the writers define “of all time”? My hunch is that this is merely the sensationalism of a circus barker selling his or her wares in a “gee-whiz-kids-come-and-see-the-freaks” voice to curious customers.
How can these be the “greatest music books of all time” if the earliest published book on the list is from 1954: Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans? Holiday’s book is the only other book on the list from the 1950s. There is a handful from the 1960s, but the bulk of the titles on the list hail from the 1990s and 2000s, with a few books having just been published in 2016.
There are some very good books from 2016 on the list — most notably Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements — that are definitive treatments of their subject. Yet, how can anyone make the claim that a book published in the same year as the list is compiled is one of the greatest books of “all time”?
Weren’t there any music books from the ’20s or ’30s?
What about James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952), a novel in which music plays a decisive role?
What about the Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, which not only taught people how to sing but which teachers used to teach children the alphabet?
What about Goethe’s books on music?
That “of all time” bit, here, fails to live up to any usefulness.
Finally, by what criteria did the writers select the books? Johnny Cash’s autobiography is the only book on the list about country music, and it’s an autobiography, not a significant critical or historical work on country music. There are no books by Chet Flippo, nor did they include Paul Hemphill’s The Nashville Sound. There are also no books on bluegrass on the list; why omit Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History or Murphy Hicks Henry’s Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass? Each of these books offers significant histories of the genre.
I can’t help but wonder if the writers considered these books the “greatest” because they were written by people who are acknowledged to be some of the “greatest” musicians of the last 50 years (though even that might be arguable). Are they the “greatest” because they have sold so many copies in their very short lives? Regrettably, the writers who compiled the list offer no criteria by which they’ve selected the books, so we’re left wondering how some of these even made the cut.
For me, a more instructive and helpful list of “greatest books” would include those music books one would be well advised to return to over and over again for wisdom or insight, or simply to read once again a few pages of exhilarating prose that presents the sweep of a particular time in music history.
If you could save only 100 music books from your library, which ones would they be?
I’d like this column to be a starting point. Consider this an invitation to send in your list of music books that you can’t live without. You need not list 100, but each of us has maybe 10 books that we re-read for instruction and delight. I’ll compile our lists into a larger list to publish in a future column.