Songs about books, books about music: who says worlds don’t collide? For all you ravers and disco-queens, grungers and jazz fans, we reckon there’s a book there that’ll yoke all your passions together. Here’s ten, we think, give you the best of both worlds.
1. A Visit From The Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, 2010
Less a novel than a short-story cycle (interlinked stories, doncha know), but an absolutely rocking read for all that: spanning several decades, from the sixties to the near future, and leaping from Africa to Europe and back to the States, it loosely follows the adventures of a group of folk involved with the San Francisco music scene. It’s got one section that’s told as a PowerPoint presentation and riffs on the mysteries of great rock’n’roll pauses, and another that’s about a music producer who sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee in an attempt to get his mojo going. A classic in the making!
2. An Equal Music, Vikram Seth, 1999
A violinist and a pianist embark on an affair after having been separated since their student days. An affecting love story, gorgeously written, and worth every one of its five hundred pages, it’s also a really moving account of the characters’ passion for chamber music and the tragedy of impending deafness.
3. The Commitments, Roddy Doyle, 1987
A group of unemployed kids in north Dublin in the eighties form a soul band; near fame, ill-judged affairs and implosive rows mean it’s not so likely to come good… Doyle’s first book really is laugh-out-loud funny; his dialogue in the Dublin demotic is spot-on, and characters like Jimmy Rabbitte, Outspan Foster and Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan aren’t ones you’ll ever forget. Plus, the music! You’ll be rocking out to Wilson Pickett before you reach page two.
4. Scott Pilgrim (series), Bryan Lee O’Malley (2004-2010)
We can’t recommend just one story in this graphic series by O’Malley; the whole lot are worth reading. Slacker Scott lives in Toronto, plays bass for Sex Bob-Omb, and is in love with the kick-ass Ramona Flowers. If you’ve seen the film version, you’ll know how funny it is, and we love the way that gigs and alternative musicians are central to a manga-style text like this: rock on, Scott!
5. Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta, 2012
A talented, but failed, rock musician retreats into a fantasy world, where he fills up his home with accounts of his imaginary successes. This one’s all about loss and yearning and memory, personal mythology and sibling relationships, and, of course, music and the perils of the music scene.
6. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby, 1995
A London record-store owner (Chicago in the film adaptation) has jus been dumped by his girlfriend. Seeking understanding and redemption, and being a massive music trivia fiend who loves compiling Top Ten lists, he makes a list of his five worst break-ups and hunts down the women to quiz them on why it all went wrong. Full of music references, this’ll be a trip down memory lane for any heartbroken wanna-be DJ.
7. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett, 2001
One for the opera fans! A bunch of terrorists hold a bunch of business folk hostage in Argentina, including American soprano Roxane Coss. It’s romantic and tense and utterly compelling, plus it uses opera as a device to bring everyone together: the title, Bel Cano, even means ‘beautiful singing’. Patchett’s a stunning writer: even if you’ve never been interested in opera, you’ll want to listen to an aria or ten after reading this one.
8. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem, 2003
Music and graffiti are the two main topics here: Dylan Ebdus grows up in Brooklyn, hanging out with best mate, Mingus Rude and Mingus’s dad, Barret Rude Jr, a soul singer who introduces Dylan to jazz, soul, R& B, funk and hip-hop. While the book has all kinds of weird and wonderful reference points – the Superman nod in the title, the magic ring the kids find, numerous riffs on graffiti culture ¬– music is at the heart of it, and it’ll have particular resonance for anyone who grew up in or near Brooklyn, as it traces the gentrification of Gowanus from the seventies through to the nineties.
9. The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, 1983
Well, this isn’t quite so much about the music itself, but it is set in and around the Vienna Conservatory and features a piano teacher, Erika, who has an affair with one of her students. It’s brilliant on twisted mother-daughter relationships as well as on the power dynamics between lovers. It’s a very intense read, and is still probably Jelinek’s best known title in English translation even since her Nobel win in 2004. Not for the faint of heart!
10. Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx, 1996
From the writer that brought you ‘Brokeback Mountain’, as well as Postcards and The Shipping News (which is much better than the film adaptation, believe us), Accordion Crimes follows a single musical instrument through a century of owners, from Sicily to Iowa to Mississippi and onwards (no spoilers here). It’s a really interesting survey of US history as well as a lovely account of how music can unite disparate situations and people – but like all Proulx’s work, it doesn’t shy away from brute violence, so don’t mistake it for a sentimental jaunt….