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September 14, 2018

Tita Chico's Playlist for Her Book "The Experimental Imagination"

The Experimental Imagination

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tita Chico's The Experimental Imagination is an illuminating examination of teh relationship between literature and science in the British Enlightenment.

Jonathan Kramnick wrote of the book:

"Subtle, learned, and inventive at every turn, The Experimental Imagination is essential reading for anyone seeking to rethink the relationship between literature and science in the eighteenth century. The effort to join these histories is one of the great projects of our time. This book is the state of the art."

In her own words, here is Tita Chico's Book Notes music playlist for her book The Experimental Imagination:


I do a lot of my writing in rare book libraries in the US and the UK, which can be as quiet and dusty as you’d imagine. You need to register ahead of time and when you enter, you can only bring your wallet, papers, computer, and pencils (never pens) in a clear plastic bag. Security checks you on the way out.

Rare book libraries are often cold and the librarians know this. You can check out a pashmina in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room of the British Library, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC will lend you a hand-knitted woolen scarf. Plus, the Folger serves tea in the basement refectory every afternoon at 3 o’clock.

I sit for hours at these wooden tables, often with a little ache in my lower back, my mind plotting when I’ll pack up to take a coffee break or lunch. But when my headphones fill my body with music, I lose myself in words—words from the past and words of my own. The link, for me, between music and writing is about what we are hearing as we find our voices.

In my new book, I think about how literature seemed like a more reliable way of understanding the world than science did during the Enlightenment. And I listened to music all along the way.


“French Navy,” Camera Obscura

Beginning with “spent a week in a dusty library,” this Scottish indie pop song does well on repeat. I’ve listened to it while sitting in the British Library’s Rare Books and Music Room at desk 225 (my favorite, near where my friends, Becky and Markman, usually sit), in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress (with its gorgeous rotunda and annoyingly tilted desks), and in the southern California light of the Huntington Library (with its staff who manage to ring a bell for lunch in a way that is both charming and frightening). Once, at the British Library, I kept turning up the volume on my laptop because I could only hear this song faintly. Yep, my headphones were unplugged and I got several British stares.

“Science is Real,” They Might Be Giants

With the first track on their educational children’s CD, Here Comes Science, They Might Be Giants deliver an anthem for today—an insistence that science is real. Scientists have taken to the streets for demonstrations around the globe, clasping witty placards: “Up and Atom,” “Dear Climate, You’ve Changed,” and “I was told to bring a SINE.”

These scientists are defending themselves by insisting that scientific facts are real. My book tells the story about when scientists were just beginning to develop their method and intellectual claims in the late seventeenth century. They were careful to present themselves and their findings as objective, but they also embraced their imaginations in ways that we have forgotten.

“Space Oddity,” David Bowie

The static, lonely image of an isolated astronaut, “sitting in a tin can far above the world,” has traveled with me for a long time. Bowie’s response to the flurry of space programs, and their geopolitical implications, finds resonance for me in Bernard de Fontenelle’s 1686 scientific dialogue, The Plurality of Worlds, which popularized Cartesian and Copernican cosmology. Why? Because to describe the earth’s rotation, Fontenelle imagines himself “hanging in the Air … while the Earth turns round under me.” Ground Control to Major Tom.

“Crack in the Wall,” Suzanne Vega

I was on fellowship at the University of London’s Institute for English Studies when my associate chair called me to ask if I would start teaching the graduate research methods course the next fall. I demurred, saying I don’t know how, and she pointed out that I was sitting outside of a research library … where I was doing research. We literature professors can point students to the available research tools, the databases, and the archives. But how would I explain the intellectual journey of good research? It is, in many ways, an act of imagination, as Suzanne Vega’s song so aptly captures—a crack in the wall is actually a door to another world, if you’re only willing to see it.

“Hurricane,” MS MR

When the singer of MS MR, Lizzy Plaginger, intones the lyrics of “Hurricane,” she’s using a meteorological metaphor to talk about “the inner workings of my mind” and her heart “full of darkness.” This isn’t just another stormy heart—it’s a full-fledged confession of a love refused and the ache of recognition. I discovered this song (a friend gave me their “Think of You”) when I was writing about microscopes and telescopes, optical instruments that have the potential to let you see far beyond your natural ability. For some, this was exciting and promising. For others, the experience was overwhelming and terrifying. The point for me is that there are many ways of seeing—with one’s eyes and with the mind’s eye.

“Threnody,” Goldmund (aka, Keith Kenniff)

A threnody is a lament, a song or an ode to honor someone who has died. For a year, I wasn’t writing this book. I had lost too much all at once—my marriage, my health, my brother. Goldmund’s quiet composition captures how mourning can also be exquisitely beautiful.

“Numb,” Jamelia’s acoustic cover @ BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge

If I can’t write, it’s because I can’t think. And if I can’t think, it’s because I’ve lost myself, whatever that self is at the moment. I cherish my curiosity because it leads me to places other people don’t go, but it often comes first as a feeling. It can also be extraordinarily fragile. Virginia Woolf has an image that the beginning of an idea is like a little fish that slips under a rock, never to be seen again. The song “Numb” captures this sensibility perfectly for me: it’s a story of recognition and, in Jamelia’s stripped down acoustic version (which I prefer to Linkin Park’s, though their Encore version with Jay-Z is pretty awesome), a love letter to feeling as thinking.

“Joy,” Tracey Thorn

Why include a Christmas song by vocalist Tracey Thorn? Because I just now looked at my iTunes to see what songs I had played the most and she tops the list. 472 plays. My friend, Toni, sent me this CD during my really tough year and I found incredible comfort in the call for joy. Honest and pure. It’s not playing, but I can hear her voice now, even as I type.

“She Blinded Me With Science,” Thomas Dolby

This 1982 classic begins with an allusion to literature: “It’s poetry in motion.” This phrase, and its many repetitions, relies upon literariness to convey the wonder and allure of science. The song goes on to vocalize a “mad scientist,” a character type as old as science itself, mad for a woman. Dolby’s linkage between sexual desire for a woman and intellectual desire for science dates back at least to Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century who thought of science as a sexual quest.

“China in Your Hand” (full-length album version), T’Pau

Everyone knows Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic gothic tale about the hubris of a mad scientist who both creates life (the creature) and refuses it (a mate for the outcast creature). T’Pau returns to this urtext to focus on the ethics of scientific discovery, warning us not “to push too far.”

“Cómo Te Atreves,” Morat

Morat is a Colombian folk-pop band. I listened to this song countless times this past January while staying at my aunt’s Quinta in Argentina. The infectious melody belies the lyric’s rather dark bitterness, but that never stopped my little cousins from singing the chorus at full volume. In between splashes in the pool, siestas, mate, and choripan, I began working on my index for The Experimental Imagination. I finished the index back in the States, back in winter, tucked up in front of the fire, with the dancing rhythms of Morat in my mind.

Tita Chico and The Experimental Imagination links:

the author's website
excerpts from the book

Jenny Davidson interview with the author
Public Seminar essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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