THE READING ROOM: Korby Lenker on Reading, Re-Reading, and Fueling His Writing
Photo by David McClister
Korby Lenker doesn’t remember when he wasn’t reading a book. “I fell in love with reading at a very young age,” the singer-songwriter says.
As a child he recalls his mother reading Where the Red Fern Grows to him, and being moved by it and his mother’s reaction to it, too. “It was so powerful to see my mom cry,” he recalls. He learned then the power of books and stories to move people. “I owe so much of my life to books,” Lenker declares. “I can’t wait for that next book to pierce me.”
Lenker, whose new album, Man in the Maroon, releases this Friday, is also the author of a book of short stories, Medium Hero and Other Stories (Turner), which came out in 2015. About a year ago, he started Korby’s Book Club on YouTube, where he talks about books that he’s read that others might enjoy. He continues to write short stories, and he reads one, “Mose and Ella,” about the magic and mystery of music, on his new album.
I talked to Lenker by phone about books and reading.
What books are on your nightstand now?
I’m always reading one fiction book and one nonfiction book. Right now, I’m reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and I am touched by its lessons. It’s making me think about getting older and my parents getting older. The book also reveals the stark differences between the ways India deals with growing older and the elderly and dying, where the author is from, and the ways we deal with these matters here in the US. The novel I am reading — just started it — is Islandia, by Austin Tappan Wright. It’s a tome of almost 1,000 pages. I don’t often like books this long, but reading fiction is part of my daily ritual. Since I write a lot, I like to read a story or part of a novel every day to get me in the mood to write. It’s transportive; it takes me to a different state of mind. It’s sort of dancing, it gets my imagination going.
Do you always finish books?
That’s a hard thing for me. I’ll start reading, but I will abandon a book if something’s not working for me about it. Life is short; there are so many books and so little time.
What’s a classic you have just read for the first time?
Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History. It’s a piercing treasure trove of wisdom. The Durants, who were historians, distill in this little book their stories about figures and periods of history from their 11-volume The Story of Civilization. The book reveals that although cultures may be different, the challenges they face are not so different. I also re-read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice recently after about 20 years, and I found it just blistering in its treatment of the human condition. I’ve just started to re-read books. When I read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when I was 21, it really rang my bell spiritually. I grew up in a conservative Christian home and in the novel Father Zossima’s concept of heaven was nothing like I had been taught. His concept was foundational to my own concept of heaven and hell. I wonder what it would be like to re-read it now?
What are some of your favorite bookstores?
Just like authors and musicians are a living community we need to nurture and support, booksellers are a community we need to nurture and support. I love The Bookshop here in East Nashville and Parnassus in Nashville. I love used paperbacks, and I bought so many when I was in college. My two favorite used bookstores were Michael’s, which has since closed, and Henderson’s Books. At Henderson’s I found the best book I’ve ever found, but now I can’t find my copy. It’s out of print, and I have looked for it on rare books sites, but I haven’t been able to find it. It’s a picture book called The Power of Music, written and compiled by MENC, a music education association. On every page there are pictures of people playing different musical instruments; I could open it to any page and cry, the pictures were so moving. It explains why I am associated with music.
What are some books you’ll never part with?
Norman Rush, Mating: My Unitarian godmother gave it to me, and she told me that when I read a word I didn’t know the meaning of to write it down and ask her. I started making a list of words on the inside front cover and found so many words that the list continued onto the inside back cover. The book is interesting and funny and weird.
Jeannette Haien, The All of It: It was first published in 1986, but a new edition was published about 10 years ago; Ann Patchett wrote the foreword to the new edition. It’s a delicate and appealing book.
Lorrie Moore, Self-Help: Moore has such a clear and distinctive voice. The novel has it all: personality, sarcasm, heartbreak.
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls: I think about the story quite often. I sometimes read sections of it to people. There is this great description of a small town that’s divided between the fascists and the liberals; when the fascists take over the town, they kill everyone who’s not with them.
What moves you most in a work of fiction?
When the book portrays a world I want to live in and spend this much time in this world. The best prose is translucent. It allows me to look through the story at the mind behind the story and to see if I have an affinity with it or an aversion to it.
What is the difference for you between writing a song and writing a short story?
For me, short stories can come out in a single burst of emotion, in a day or a week. I write a lot in a white heat. I push out the story to see what the plot is or what the characters are doing. I am passionate about reading and language; I’m a fan of great songwriters like Guy Clark, John Prine, and Joni Mitchell. While prose lacks formal restrictions, songwriting is very restrictive. You start with an idea as a focal point to aim at. If the first verse isn’t there, you just don’t go on. It’s a much slower process and in some ways not as much fun.
What’s the last book that made you angry? Made you laugh? Made you cry?
Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee made me angry. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City made me laugh out loud. Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail made me cry. It’s about this contemporary guy who decided to re-trace the Oregon Trail in the way the settlers would have traveled it, and it’s about the challenges he faces. At one point in the story, he and his friend are riding these mules up Heartbreak Ridge in Nebraska, and you’ve gotten to know the mules, so I was really touched by what these mules were going through.
You’re having a dinner party can invite a few authors living or dead; whom do you invite?
Hemingway, a mannish man; Virginia Woolf — the conversation between those two might be a real train wreck; James Baldwin, J.K. Rowling, I feel like she’d be the most urbane one there.