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September 27, 2013

Book Notes - Kevin Smokler "Practical Classics"

The Dark Path

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kevin Smokler smartly and wittily makes the case for exploring the English canon as adults in his book Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School .

Robin Sloan wrote of the book:

"With Practical Classics, Smokler has done at least four remarkable things at once: he's given curious adult readers a path into the old English-class canon; he's updated that canon with a host of titles that will surprise you; he's wrapped it all up in a crisp, concise, random-access format perfectly suited to the twenty-first century; and, best of all, he's made these fifty books feel fresh and urgent and new again."

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 Kevin Smokler's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection, Practical Classics:

Practical Classics, my essay collection published in February, was the first book I'd written all by myself and I had exactly 10 months to finish it. In those ten months, I'd have to read 50 books I was assigned in high school English class, research what had been said about them, and write a 1500 essay on why these books can be useful to a grown adult.

You know the old story on how to eat an elephant? By literary standards, my book was more the size of a teenage giraffe. You still eat a teenage giraffe one bite at a time. Otherwise, I'll look at the whole giraffe, not know where to begin then conclude there's still time to become an accountant.

Every day then, I went to the same coffee shop, drank the same beverage, put on my purple headphones and fired up the same playlist--2 hours long, one shift in the morning, one in the afternoon.

To listen while writing meant a score rather than a soundtrack; I can't hear words and at the same time find my own. The music should cry out "Sometime important is happening!" as I work best when I feel like the star of my own training montage. And at two hours and 28 tracks, the playlist should probably have a beginning, middle and end so I know that I'm getting somewhere and at some very real point, I'll be able to hold my fists above my head and say "Done!" Maybe even while a group of Philadelphia children chant my name.


"The Lonely Train" Explosions in the Sky

The opening track "The Lonely Train" leads off 6 tracks from the Texas band's score for the movie "Friday Night Lights." It's pensive, melancholy, yet epically so, guitars floating into an enormous night sky to encircle the stars. I don't remember how I chose those six or why I put them in that order. But after thousands of playthroughs, they're the only ones that sound right.

The delicate quiet of "Lonely Train" calms my mind then clears it. It's a door closing and a realization I'm in a different space. The day is "out there" now. Time for something else to happen.


"Love on a Real Train" by Tangerine Dream and "Filterwave" by the Lovemakers

Tracks 7-12 alternate between faster, more urgent pieces by "Tangerine Dream" from the Risky Business soundtrack and the solum ripple of "Filterwave" by the defunct Oakland-electropop band The Lovemakers. Risky Business is a completely different movie--dark instead of glorifying, dreamlike instead of naked--because of its score. Tangerine Dream, both there and here, says that something this happening, you're not quite sure what but it's bigger than and likely overtaking you. Better hang on.

"Filterwave" with its chords as thick and holy as the spires of a cathedral is a synthetic, grounding pause in the midst of all that. Here I take stock. A half-hour has passed, I better be fully into something by now. If I'm not writing, I'm not listening.


"Pachabel's Canon in D" by Pachabel

I was not a classical music listener until I met my wife (who runs a classical music organization) 6 1/2 years ago. I knew I wanted a break here, musically something totally different, a few minutes at about the halfway point to stretch and shake out my hands before jumping back in. This old standby of weddings and middle school orchestras was what I knew of classical at the time.

I can see this changing. The playlists evolves and grows as my musical knowledge and hopefully I do too.


"Olsen Olsen" by Sigur Ros

Kicks us into 3 rather lengthy tracks by the Icelandic band whose sound I like to describe as "If a glacier could sing to you." Otherworldly in its beauty, on a good day I'm now no longer in my head and trying to make it happen. It just does.

I don't need to think about what word comes next. I've done this enough times and I know.


"Chariots of Fire" by "Vangelis"

The most stiff-backed of cliches but it works for me every time. I read once that, if you're say trying to do 10 pushups, the hardest one will be number 7. You're far enough in to be tired, not close enough to sprint to the finish line.

"Chariots of Fire" is my seventh pushup. I'm about 70% into this writing session and the pull of distraction is strong. The music is triumphal but with dignity and calm. Remember Chariots of Fire? The movie was about British athletes in the 20s who wore straw hats and sang Gilbert & Sullivan when not at the track.

If you walked in on me at this point and all was well, my face should be in repose, not grimace. I wouldn't be obsessing over not being quite done. I'd just run right past it.


"A Different Drum" by Peter Gabriel

Over the top of the hill now and into the city below. A reminder of when I invented this little system 14 years ago in graduate school and wrote my masters thesis in 4-hour daily blocks, or four trips through Gabriel's soundtrack for the film Last Temptation of Christ, where I first discovered "A Different Drum."

The blacksmith hammering of the percussion sound like nothing else on this playlist--, insistent, jabbing, a-listen-to-me racing forward from 2000 years ago. And then…


"Grand Canyon Main Titles" -- James Newton Howard

If you've seen this 1991 movie, the opening title roll over black & white footage of a pickup basketball game in a Los Angeles park. Could be present day or from Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep a generation before. At just under two minutes, the footage switches to the Laker's game in full color, with Magic Johnson racing up the court.

The music switches too,now guitars and celebratory piano, leaping, racing around and through its last mile.


"Panther Dash" by The Go! Team…

Leads off 5 tracks by the English (what would you call them? hip-hop/indie rock/double dutch/high school cheerleading?) band. Impossible to sit still to. I'm writing as fast I can now. Time is running out.


"Gonna Fly Now" by Bill Conti (aka the Rocky-running-up-the-steps-music)

You know me by now. How could I not?


"Shake off the Ghosts" by Simple Minds

Deep breath and done. The instrumental that closes the band's 1984 breakthrough album Sparkle in the Rain. Really just a few low base chords repeated with a guitar doing counterpoint an octave higher. Swells in places then returned to its smaller self.

Because of the title of both the song and album, I've always associated this piece with healing and second chances, becoming better. With letting go.

It reminds me that the act of writing is equal parts hard work, self-permission and forgiveness. And whatever gets you there is the right away, at least for you.


Kevin Smokler and Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School links:

the author's website

Fiction Writers Review review

The Atlantic Wire profile of the author
Books on the Nightstand interview with the author
GalleyCat interview with the author
Gapers Block profile of the author
Los Angeles Times interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
Talk of the Nation interview with the author


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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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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