The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Musical Cheers

June 4, 2009
Washington, DC

The Communications office here at the NEA is a pretty musical place. A quick audio tour of our various haunts on any given day might yield Mozart, St. Vincent, Wilco, or The Dixie Chicks. I?ve asked Don Ball, our publications manager and resident musicologist (who?s prone to fits of Joshua Redman and Charles Mingus), to take a look at his home library and offer up a sound-tracked summer reading list.

While DC is awash in the reading of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I thought I would share other notable books that also feature music or musicians prominently. The list (with pithy comments) is by no means comprehensive, and only represents books that I have read.

1. The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac. This novel by the King of the Beats uses the improvisational quality of jazz as a technique for writing. To my mind, a much better book than On the Road. It?s written in a crazed stream-of-consciousness following an inter-racial couple as they make their way through the jazz clubs of San Francisco in the 1950s and try to come to some awareness of who they are.

2. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Although the narrator Oskar?s drum playing and singing hardly could be called musical, they are important components of his character, crucial to the reader?s understanding of him. And he does play in a jazz band after the war?

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. In this vision of a dystopian future, our humble narrator Alex?s love of music is paralleled with violence run rampant in society. Don?t let Burgess?s made-up slang throw you off?it?s not nearly as difficult to read as many would like you to think.

4. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. The arrival of the Beatles in the early 1960s flits around the edges of this typically enigmatic novel by Pynchon (but probably his most readable and enjoyable). Songs and musical references appear throughout the text, as does a fledging rock band, the Paranoids, who amusingly speak with an American accent but sing with a British one.

5. The Commitments by Roddy Doyle. A bunch of Irish working-class youth start a soul band in Dublin?that?s pretty much the plot. But the real story is the relationships between the excellent characters that Doyle creates, told mostly in dialogue. A very funny read.

6. But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer. A strangely lyrical little book?the author uses photographs of eight jazz musicians as the jumping off point to write fictional vignettes about them. Its prose often captures the feel and rhythm of jazz and the hard lives of its practitioners.

7. Through the Ivory Gate by Rita Dove. The poet?s only novel follows a cello player/puppeteer on her artist-in-residency at a high school in her old hometown?Akron, Ohio?flipping back and forth between her past and present.

8. The Soloist by Mark Salzman. The narrator is a former child prodigy on cello, who, having lost his musical desire at the age of eighteen, now teaches music. When a nine-year-old Korean boy is brought to him for lessons, it forces the narrator to reexamine his life and his art. And if that doesn?t draw you in, there?s a murder trial that he?s a juror on, in which a Buddhist monk has been killed.

9. Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. Bluesman Robert Johnson is still on the run from the devil and arrives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, passing his magical guitar to Thomas-Builds-the-Fire. Thus begins Alexie?s imaginative novel that manages to intertwine the rock-and-roll experience with the contemporary life of Native Americans.

10. About a Boy by Nick Hornsby. Although High Fidelity is his best known, Hornsby creates an extremely entertaining story about a cynical man who connects with a strange, lonely boy through music. Kurt Cobain in absentia plays a critical role.

Have your own favorites? Drop us a line or leave a comment.

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