Would You Like a Song With That Book?
When I apply to jobs in far off places and consider leaving Toronto, my first thought is often: how will I live without my book club?
Yeah, I’m in a book club. We’re not all Oprah about it – that shit is messed up – in fact, it has the explicit title Casual Book Club so that we don’t feel pressured to be formal about it. We still attend if we haven’t finished the book, knowing that people might talk about how it ends, and we spend much of the time talking about our lives rather than deeply analyzing the book.
That could be the reason I love it: over the course of three or four years, we’ve become a tight-knit, exclusive little group with a recognizable dynamic. There are only seven of us, and by some strange force in the universe, our two boys have never attended a meeting together. I’m convinced that they’re both so good-looking that the world would implode simply from them being in the room at the same time. Am I right, girls?
Through our meetings, we’ve witnessed two weddings, several new houses, two babies (who attend, as do the cats), many new jobs, some graduations…the list of good things goes on and on. There’s also the occasional bit of bad news; an opportunity for book group to turn into a support group. We’re a vocationally diverse set, but all somehow connected to the arts and literature worlds. Over time, we’ve come to know each other’s tastes well, not just in books, but in wine too. The more the wine flows, the more we start admitting to celebrity/girl crushes, making for some revealing, if not slightly awkward moments. These are the friends that I totally adore.
One reason I love book group so much is it gives me an excuse to read fiction, which I don’t have a ton of time for otherwise. I rely on my friends’ good taste to find other books to read on my own, and I rarely make suggestions, greedily wanting an excuse to pick up a new book instead of re-reading one I already know. The most recent pick, though, is mine, because I’ve started to notice a trend in my cultural consumption life, that if I am reading a really great book, somehow its influence bleeds into everything else I’m taking in.
I first noticed this when we were reading Small Island by Andrea Levy. The book oscillates between WWII Jamaica and England, touching on the lives of a racially mixed group of people at a particularly challenging time for race relations in both places. One day, I was reading the book on my way to a tap dance class, and listening to Bob Wills and I suddenly felt like super 1940s girl…everything that was stimulating me at the moment was from that time.
(An aside: aren’t the lyrics to die for? “Lips so sweet and tender/ like petals falling apart/ yeah…”)
I noticed this again just last month when I went on a Billy Joel binge, resurrecting some of the tunes that played on the turntable when we were kids. Our last book club book was Jim Crace’s Being Dead, a fairly graphic account of the murder and decomposition of a middle-aged couple on a beach. Well, wouldn’t you know, every word of Joel’s “This is the Time” fits with the plot of that book, sometimes in a morbidly amusing way. Similarly atmospheric is the desert rock of Calexico, matching Taylor racing across the desert in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees.
Other times haven’t seen such clear connections between book and music. I mistakenly took Little Bee by Chris Cleave on my honeymoon to Nashville and Memphis. Note to those who have an upcoming honeymoon or romantic vacation: don’t take this book. It will mess you up. Badly. The foundational story of the couple in the book was emotionally draining, and meanwhile all around me this crazy Elvis soundtrack was playing. It wasn’t good.
Still other times, I haven’t made a connection between book and my soundtrack of the moment, despite – or because of – the fact that I’m totally wrapped in the world of the book. To me, those are the best books. They are the ones that make you think in the author’s language even when you aren’t reading, that pull you in like you’re sinking into a warm bath as soon as you open the cover. Two in particular stand out for me in this way: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Sarah Waters’s Little Stranger. I was so engrossed with Little Stranger that I gasped when I read the last paragraph. And I cried through the last chapter of Never Let Me Go. I was even daydreaming about Little Stranger the other night, thinking about her language and that heady feeling I got whenever I read it, being drawn into the world of Hundreds Hall and the way England crumbled just after the war. Mmmm….I might have to read it again.
In those cases, the pairing of book and music might best be done by mood rather than era or style. That all-encompassing feeling of drowning in a finely woven plot or intricate prose that you can’t shake off is maybe better met with an album of warm timbres and breathy voices, like Jim White’s Drill a Hole… or Chris Isaak’s Baja Sessions.
I spend most of my days reading, everything from poorly written student essays to academic articles; from submissions to my journal to album reviews; from notes on how to index books to stories about the innovative way someone painted their downtown Toronto condo white. So when I get a chance to be pulled into something that’s more removed from everyday life, and the author is really successful in achieving that, I’m happy. Even more so when the music I’m listening to takes me further out of reality and connects me with the book.
The notion of a book soundtrack is odd, for many reasons. Unless you’re a super speedo weirdo reader (like I was when I was a kid and I practically had a book finished as my parents drove out of the bookstore parking lot), you’re going to get through a soundtrack several times before you finish reading, and then it’s probably all out of sync; most of the songs not connected to what you’re reading. Even though the experience of almost all art – dance, film, theatre, music – is time-based, and reading is too, the proper pacing of music against reading prose would be difficult to pull off. You can’t predict the speed at which someone reads, but you can force that speed on their reception, say, in the medium of film. That challenge hasn’t stopped people from trying though; in what might be one of the worst crimes against classic art, the publishers of Fifty Shades of Grey released a companion soundtrack featuring pieces mentioned throughout the book (while she was gettin’ it on? I don’t know exactly what the book is about and don’t care to. I read enough one day standing in the bookstore to know I wasn’t interested. To be fair, I do realize I shouldn’t be criticizing this particular novel as an instance of terrible cultural infraction when I haven’t read it, so I apologize.). Anyway. The pieces chosen for the soundtrack are all Baroque- and Romantic-era compositions (including some unfortunate canon staples like Canon in D and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring), by Bach, Verdi, and Chopin, guys who were doing just fine on their own, without the help of a raunchy plot telling you how to hear them. But, hey. Whatever gets people into Debussy.
Back to my pick. One day, Tom Phillips pushed a copy of Spanish Fly into my hand, telling me to find the Will Ferguson book that inspired the songs and to read it while listening to his album. I finally got around to it and convinced my group that we had to do a musical edition and play the album while we talked about the book. And so we all get sucked into what’s becoming a regular occurrence for me.