Unlike most things in today’s fast moving world the written word remains resolutely still, existing always at the same silent volume. Many find reading relaxing because they can switch off and head into the silence of their mind. With the advent of the Internet reading a traditional book really is going off the grid, with no hyperlinks or flashing videos to distract from the narrative. Such comfort is why reading real books will never die. Our brains understand that total escape into an unreal world makes the real one bearable.
Of course for many this retreat is not actually a silent one. Look around on a train or an airport and you will see many of those readers who are buried in books are also blocking out the world by listening to music through their headphones. For me reading and listening to music have always been linked. Ever since I was a kid I would spent most nights reading and listening to the radio. Now I tend to make playlists before I settle down to read uninterrupted.
These connections between reading and listening have been further developed by a variety of recent projects. The website Booktrack offers cultivated soundtracks for different ebooks ranging from classics like Shakespeare to self published stories where the author has chosen the mix. This idea is limited in terms of the music content that is available to this site but it is an interesting experiment in the sense that everyone who reads the book listens to the same music. Of course differing reading speeds means that it is never possible to control the exact moments the music plays so there will always be drawbacks in comparison to how a film can use music.
With the advent of streaming you can now of course make your own soundtracks to whatever you’re reading. The brilliant blog Large Hearted Boy invites authors to make playlists for their own novels and discuss the meanings behind the songs choices. Authors who have shared their book soundtracks include Lauren Groff, Bret Easten Ellis and Amy Bloom. These are usually short lists, not necessarily intended to be listened to at the same time as reading but instead a way to understand more about the characters or atmosphere the author wished to create.
With such developments it is not a surprise to see that some books are now being released with accompanying albums. For Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography he released a compilation album of songs that mirrored his life story, including unreleased tracks but sadly no new songs. I have recently read two very different books which both came with an accompanying ‘listen along’ soundtrack (sold separately). The first was ‘Greatest Hits’ a novel by Laura Barnett, with accompanying album of the same title by folk musician Kathyrn Williams and the second was a memoir and album entitled ‘Gone’ both written and performed by violinist Min Kym.
‘Greatest Hits’ is the story of a young female musician who dreams of folk stardom in England in the sixties. The novel is structured like an album with each chapter representing a song on the main character’s ‘Greatest Hits’. Each section begins with the lyrics to the song, some events in the musician’s life both past and present, which relate to the content of the lyrics. It’s a ‘high concept’ idea that perhaps works better in theory than reality. The lyrics read on paper like bad poetry and while the sections that deal with the singer’s childhood and rise to fame are engaging the novel eventually falls into rock and roll cliches that seem both sexist and stereotypical. However there is something sympathetic about this character that keeps you reading.
I listened briefly to a few songs from the accompanying album by Kathryn Williams before reading the novel but didn’t find the music particularly outstanding on its own. As I read the novel I attempted to listen to each song at the appropriate moment but found the experience too jarring. Perhaps, like a movie, this was not how I imagined this character would sound. And as the album goes on you begin to feel Williams becoming almost weighed down by the poor lyrics and overall concept. It’s an interesting experiment – perhaps worth it for the best songs here ‘Living Free’ and ‘Gethsemane’ but as a full length album it feels like an unnecessary indulgence.
The second book and music combination ‘Gone’ by Min Kym was very different and for me, a much more successful attempt at combining the two mediums. Perhaps this was because the writer and the musician were one and the same. Kym tells us of her childhood as a violin prodigy and her successes are formidable. She eventually purchases an expensive violin, a Stradivarius which is damaged but has an enviable sound. This violin helps to propel her further in her career and she plays it for ten years. The moment of drama in the memoir is when her violin is stolen at a train station cafe and her life is thrown into personal, professional and financial turmoil.
The album accompaniment, with the chosen music by Brahms, reflects different stages of her journey to uncovering the truth about what happened to her violin (no spoilers but it is not exactly a happy ending). I don’t know anything about classical music myself, except the few times I have listened to Classic FM, therefore I didn’t expect the atmosphere and intensity created by listening to this music while reading. The album is about an hour long and I probably listened to it three or four times as I read the book (I’m a fast reader). To read about Kym’s virtuoso playing and connection with the music was not enough – to listen was really to bring her writing to life.
While books do not need soundtracks, these projects show us the deep connections between reading and listening. There is so much more potential in further collaboration between writers and musicians. Who knows – this trend could be the beginning of a whole new mixed media art form.