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February 6, 2013

Book Notes - David Shields "How Literature Saved My Life"

How Literature Saved My Life

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David Shields explores our relationships both with art and creating it in his ambitious new book How Literature Saved My Life from a distinct and personal perspective.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"In this wonderful, vastly entertaining book, he weaves together literary criticism, quotations, and his own fragmentary recollections to illustrate, in form and content, how art — real art, the kind that engages and reflects the world around it — has made his life meaningful as both creator and beholder."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is David Shields's Book Notes music playlist for his book, How Literature Saved My Life:


Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel

"Every single night's a fight with my brain," Apple sings on the opening track of her most recent release. This pretty much says it all (for me and for her). When Fiona writes us a song, she sits down at the piano and opens up a vein: out comes self-examination. Apple is hard on everyone (music businessmen, ex-lovers, etc.), but she most often turns her caustic. melodic x-ray on herself. Her personal inquests may be cathartic for her, but they turn us into eager voyeurs. Neurosis has never sounded so good.


Bill Callahan, Apocalypse

Apocalypse is just the most recent installment in a long line of morose and brutally honest albums by Callahan (many released under the name Smog). His deadpan, seemingly unstudied singing can be almost abrasive upon first listen. Once you settle in, you realize Callahan has taken you with him to the bottom of the well, and it turns out it's not so bad down there. All frills and pleasantries have been stripped away. Callahan sings with the clarity of a man who has nothing left to lose, and thus has no reason not to speak the unfiltered truth about all that meets his gaze. Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” For Callahan a life full of mistakes is bandaged together by singing about it.


Beethoven, Symphony #3

My uncle’s office had a small record player and a stack of classical music. He had many performances of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 3, the so-called Heroic Symphony, and I found myself immersed, first, in all the liner notes. “Like Beethoven, Napoleon was a small man with a powerful personality,” and Beethoven admired him, so when the French ambassador to Vienna suggested to Beethoven that he write a symphony about Bonaparte, Beethoven agreed.

He was just about to send the finished score to Paris for Napoleon’s official approval when he heard that Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor. Beethoven tore off the title page, which had only the word “Bonaparte” on it, and changed the dedication to “Heroic Symphony—composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” Beethoven is then supposed to have said, “Is he, too, no more than a mere mortal?” Beethoven was disappointed, in other words, to discover that Napoleon was human.


Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass

The Kronos Quartet's renditions of Glass's String Quartets #2-5 makes for excellent, moody writing or reading music. The music is full of dark coils and fractals, the analog symphonic cousin to sampling.

(I've always seen a parallel between the looping minimalism of Glass and Steve Reich and the repeating grooves of funk and its descendant—hip-hop). The relentless melodic figure-eights somehow pull my own words along as they drip onto the computer screen. The Kronos Quartet's performances are tight as clockworks, providing dramatic soundtracks to whatever book I'm reading. Every word acquires an added gravitas. Every line becomes the most important sentence ever spoken—until the next paragraph.


Bill Shakes, Mix Tapes

A DJ working under the name Bill Shakes sends me these great 1.5 hour mix tapes (well, the digital equivalent of them at least). His most recent one, "Wrench 6," ranges from down tempo and atmospheric to dubstep-ish, with many stops in between, including a remix of Neil Young. Occasionally Shakes throws us a curveball in the form of a French pop song or a slice from an opera, but even these manage to fit the aesthetic in a Wes Anderson sort of way. Shakes is a curator of moods, and the result makes for a perfect background to an evening of writing.


Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

This Seattle group's 2011 album felt to me like hip-hop renewal. The music builds off the legacy of Digable Planets (group leader Ishmael Butler's former project), but the album also pushes collage art and sampling into uncharted territory. With copyright law effectively smothering sampling as a viable above-ground art form, groups like Shabazz Palaces have found a way to circumvent the rules via micro-editing. They make use of fragments of music so short that no one could possibly identify their origins. These fragments are repeated, looped, and copy/pasted into incredible sonic landscapes The result is an alien universe of strobing, hyper-edited sounds, at once futuristic and surreal, forming beats that perfectly mirror our multi-tasking, attention-fragmented modern era.


Bitterroot, Demos

Bitterroot hasn’t t finished anything yet, but I've heard the demos. I've always been drawn to art that insists on boundary-jumping. The music Bitterroot is making refuses to be pinned down, embodying equal parts hip-hop sampling and garage rock DIY aesthetic. They go where they need to go, and if that means a drum machine and a banjo must inhabit the same space, so be it. They make music like a director makes a movie, recording multiple versions of the same song and editing the hell out of it. The Protools rig becomes the lead instrument, the final arbiter of what emerges from our speakers. What emerges sounds a bit like what might happen if LCD Soundsystem made an album with Arcade Fire. I hope these guys finish up their album soon.


THEESatisfaction, awE NaturalE

Yet another Seattle group.

THEESatisfaction first appeared on the Shabazz Palaces album mentioned above, and both albums feature the production talents of Erik Blood (also of Seattle). Last year THEESatisfaction put out an excellent album of its own. The duo's verbal dexterity and linguistic freshness (delivered in their wonderful tag-team vocal attack) reminds me that at its best, hip hop can be a raw folk art, a personal essay machine wildly fluctuating between the scalpel and the hammer. In a form that is all too often mired in 25-year-old gangsta clichés, it's records like this that remind me why hip-hop still matters—and why I loved it in the first place.


Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

This may be an obvious choice, but an incredibly great soundtrack for contemplation. I'm a great admirer of works of art that are refined to their barest elements. Not a single wasted note here. The music somehow manages to be simultaneously warm and skeletal. Davis's horn hovers over the glacial precession like a well-edited and well-morphined bird, emitting sound only when absolutely necessary, every note containing an entire universe of blues.


David Shields and How Literature Saved My Life links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (at the author's website)
excerpt from the book (at the New York Times)

Austin Chronicle review
Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Globe and Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
New York Journal of Books review
Slate review
Village Voice review

InFrame.tv interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Reality Hunger


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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