As a kid I used to devour books as quickly as I could get my grubby little hand on them. I distinctly remember beginning to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the car ride back from the library, and simply staying in the car when we got home because I didn’t want to stop reading long enough to make the trip to the front door. I laid there, stretched out in the back seat of our beat up Isuzu Trooper, completely immersed, until there was no more light to read by.
Now days, I don’t read for recreation nearly as much as I should. Part of that comes from the heavy amount of learning/reading I have to do as part of my job, some of it is the ever increasing number of competing entertainment sources, and more than I’d like to admit is just laziness combined with the immediate availability of cat pictures on Reddit. The latter of which is why I’ve been meaning to write the following for a few years and just haven’t gotten around to it.
A few years back my sister gave me an awesome book entitled Songbook, by Nick Hornby. I’d never heard of it, or of him, but as it turns out, I was already a big fan. Hornby wrote the books High Fidelity & About a Boy, which the films of the same name are based on. About a Boy, in particular, is a truly fantastic film, with an equally impressive soundtrack. It’s a good thing for me, too, since when my sister was telling me about the book, I wasn’t particularly interested until I looked up Hornby’s other work.
One can only presume that people who say that their favorite record of all time reminds them of their honeymoon in Corsica, or of their family Chihuahua, don’t actually like music very much.-Nick Hornby, Songbook
Titled “31 Songs” in the UK, Songbook doesn’t immediately jump out as something that would be a great read – “Hey, lemme tell you about a song I like, and why.” As anyone who’s started a conversation with me about a comic book movie can tell you, listening to someone talk passionately about a something as subjective as music or movies can just be painful. At best, I expected a book of Rollingstone-esque song reviews, and a worst I expected “This song played at my prom, and from that moment on, it was special.” Luckily, my expectation couldn’t have been further from the truth. As it turns out, Songbook is really about life. Well, life, and music, and how they’re related. Sort of.
Songbook definitely isn’t a book about the importance of music, or why certain songs are good songs, or why you should listen to music – although all of that is in there. Each essay is about a specific song and why Hornby likes it, there’s no questioning that, but the essays are crafted in a way that transforms them from being about his experience, to being about anyone who loves music, and suddenly his delight becomes the reader’s, and his observations become personal. Most of the time I spent reading Songbook felt as if I was listening to an old friend retell a shared experience.
Like a pretentious but dim adult who won’t watch a film unless it has subtitles, [when I was fourteen] I wouldn’t listen to anything that wasn’t smothered in loud, distorted electric guitars. How was I to know whether the music was any good otherwise? Songs that were played on piano, or acoustic guitar, by people without mustaches and beards (girls, for example)… well, that could be bad music, trying to play a trick on me. That could be people pretending to be The Beatles when they weren’t. How would I know, if it was all undercover like that? No, best avoid the whole question of good or bad and stick to loud instead. You couldn’t go too wrong with loud.
So for me, learning to love quieter songs-country, soul, and folk songs, ballads sung by women and played on the piano or the viola or some damned thing, songs with harmonies and titles like “Carey” (because who with a pair of ears that work doesn’t love Blue?)-is not about getting older, but about acquiring a musical confidence, an ability to judge for myself. Sometimes it seems that, with each passing year, a layer of grungy guitar has been scraped away, until eventually I have reached the stage where I can, I hope, tell a good George Jones song from a bad one. Songs undressed like that, without a stitch of Stratocaster on them, are scary-you have to work them out for yourself.
And then, once you are able to do that, you become as lazy and as afraid of your own judgment as you were when you were fourteen. How do you tell whether a CD is any good? You look for evidence of quiet good taste, is how. You look for a moody black-and-white cover, evidence of violas, maybe a guest appearance from someone classy, some ironic song titles, a sticker with a quote taken from a review in Mojo or a broadsheet newspaper, perhaps a couple of references somewhere to literature or cinema. And, of course, you stop listening to music made by shrieking, leather-trousered, shaggy-haired men altogether. Because how are you supposed to know whether it’s any good or not, when it’s played that loud, by people apparently so hostile to the aesthetics of understated modernity?
-Nick Hornby, Songbook
Despite very clearly being a book about music, specifically about certain songs no less, I found that my enjoyment of the writing had little to do with the songs themselves. Many of the songs Hornby writes about, I’d not heard when I read their corresponding essay. In fact, a number of my favorite essays in the book are about songs I’ve still never listened to, despite my sister having included all of them on a CD along with the book.
Ironically, the songs themselves aren’t that important to Songbook. The book part is fantastic though.