As I may have mentioned 9,457 times on Twitter, I have been reading Nick Hornby’s Songbook (31 Songs to those of you outside of the U.S.). These essays are as much about each of the 31 songs he chooses to talk about as they are about everything else. Hornby is a die-hard fan of pop music (a category that for him includes the likes of everything from Bob Dylan and the Patti Smith Group to Nelly Furtado and Rod Stewart–I know some Dylan fans who will wholeheartedly disagree with that categorization), and he is unapologetic for the most part about his musical tastes. He does not like classical music, for example.
The best thing about Hornby is that he treats the music that he likes the same way he treats, say, the characters in his books. He approaches it with genuine interest and kind humor. Songs are never to be taken too seriously (well, okay, maybe sometimes), but one should also not laugh them off, no matter how “light” they seem to be. And songs give us a connection to the world and help us understand ourselves in ways that words alone cannot. Here he is, writing about his autistic son Danny, and Danny’s relationship with music:
If it’s true that music does, as I’ve attempted to argue elsewhere, serve as a form of self-expression even to those of us who can express ourselves tolerably well in speech or in writing, how much more vital is it going to be for him, when he has so few other outlets? That’s why I love the relationship with music he has already, because it’s how I know he has something in him that he wants others to articulate. In fact, thinking about it now, it’s why I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out.
As someone who deals with words for a living, I get this, and I would guess that a fair number of other bookish types also get it as well. Considering the question “If you were stranded on a desert island and had to choose between music or books, which would you choose?” I would pick music every time. A book tells one story, and while I am the type to re-read favorite books and rarely tire of them, I still believe music offers more. It’s like having a master key that unlocks a thousand stories we tell ourselves.
Think about a song you heard perhaps for the first time when you were a child, a song you still listen to today. That song encompasses every person you’ve ever been, every version of you, every time you’ve heard it. And I suppose one could argue the same is true when we re-read a favorite book each year: we bring our older, different selves to a book each time. But songs also contain possibilities. Madame Bovary will always be Madame Bovary (as long as the literary critics will let her rest). But I can listen to a song and make up my own story, a story perhaps not even connected to my present or my past. Maybe that’s the writer in me. I’m always making up soundtracks for things I haven’t written yet, or maybe never will.
The other day I decided that I would listen to all my albums in alphabetical order. I chose alphabetical specifically so I won’t tire of one particular artist. What I’d like to do is post thoughts about those albums here. I guess I’m knocking off Nick Hornby, sure, but reading this book has reminded me how important music is to me, how much it has shaped who I am. I have a lot of things I haven’t listened to in years; I generally rely on Pandora, and while I’ve discovered some new artists that way, I also have felt, reading this book, a bit of a gap. I may find, as Hornby does, that certain certain songs or albums no longer suit me, no longer represent the world the way they once did. But I am also hoping that other things open up, that I have a new or extended sense of appreciation. I am not a music scholar, and I don’t plan to write reviews. Just thoughts. That’s all.