For the past two years Paper Cuts, the book blog at The New York Times, has been asking high-profile authors to jot down a playlist of their favorite songs—songs that inspired their writing, or songs related to the subjects of their books. This series, called “Living with Music,” has become the most-tagged set of posts on the offical blog of the paper of record.
In recent posts, Charles Bock describes his favorite holiday songs, and Sloane Crosley explains what she does when the batteries in her BlackBerry fail. Are you skeptical that Ben Greenman knows what it’s like to be a black funk singer in the 1970s, like the protagonist of his new book? Maybe his playlist will change your mind. Suzanne Vega contributes a playlist, too. Because if you like books, well, maybe you also like Suzanne Vega?
All of this reminds us of a joke Mitch Hedberg used to tell.
When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. “All right, you’re a stand-up comedian. Can you write us a script?” That’s not fair. It’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, “Okay, you’re a cook. Can you farm?”
Today we expect authors to farm. They finish a book and we say, “Okay, you’re a writer. Can you organize a publicity campaign? Can you get on TV? Can you recommend some decent music?” To some extent these are necessary ways of promoting a book. But after a certain point the publicity becomes the product, and the book seems like an afterthought.
What is “Living with Music” trying to accomplish? Sometimes it seems to contradict itself. As we’re reading a book, should we be listening to songs recommended by the author, or songs recommended by a New York Times book critic? Sometimes the playlists seem like an obligation. If John Wray listened to heavy metal while writing Lowboy, does that mean we should download a Sunn O))) album, even though it has nothing to do with the story, and we don’t enjoy heavy metal?
We can see how a book blog would be tempted to connect with readers by discussing music. It’s certainly easier to hook someone’s interest by talking about a song—often a three minute clip of something familiar from the radio, or easily found online—than by talking about books, which generally demand a greater investment of time, money, and attention. Music also lends itself to a more casual sort of criticism. If you like a Madonna song, you just like it; nobody can argue with your tastes. But to discuss a book, you have to start with a synopsis, an author bio, and at least a rudimentary evaluation of its worth. It’s probably easier to fill a book blog with posts about music.
And we can’t fault the authors for going along with it. Publishing is a tough business, and you do what you can to sell your books.
But we the readers don’t have to put up with filler, especially when it removes us from the work we should be focusing on.
Paper Cuts is not the only place where you can find ancillary material to enhance your reading. Largehearted Boy, a music and books web site, has been posting author playlists for a long time. And occasionally someone will suggest an alcoholic beverage (or a whole meal) to gussy up that book you’re reading. It’s like we’re anxious that reading a book is not enough of an “experience,” and we have to submit to additional rituals to make the stories come alive.
Maybe we should take this as our cue to get philosophical about what constitutes a book. What if the real product is the whole package—the stuff between the covers, the stuff an author says in interviews, the stuff they listen to (or claim to listen to) on their iPods, the stuff in their public appearance photos that was airbrushed out of their jacket photos, and the stuff we’re eating and drinking as we read? If these are part of the way we understand the book, then maybe they’re extensions of the narrative itself, from the opening sentence to the blog commentary about the webcast.
Or maybe we should just remind everyone to skip the bonus features and read the books.