Each month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. We hopped across the pond this month to read English novelist Nick Hornby’s esteemed essay collection 31 Songs. Whether he’s writing about record shops and relationships (High Fidelity), penning lyrics for Ben Folds (Lonely Avenue), or reviewing records, Hornby remains the music lover’s loudest and most passionate voice in the literary community. Read on to see our club’s reaction to 31 Songs.
Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor at Consequence of Sound
— Paula Mejia, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound, Freelance writer for SPIN, The A.V. Club
— Rachel Bailey, Associate Editor at Georgia Music Magazine, freelance writer for Paste, Aux.Out.
— Steven Arroyo, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
— Henry Hauser, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
Previous Book Club Reviews:
Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad
I Would Die 4 U: How Prince Became An Icon by Touré
Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me by R. Kelly
Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Love Trumps Memory
Matt Melis (MM): Nick Hornby lays out his intentions for the essays of 31 Songs as follows:
“If you love a song, love it enough for it to accompany you throughout the different stages of your life, then any specific memory is rubbed away by use… I didn’t want to write about memories. That wasn’t the point. One can only presume that the people who say that their very favourite record of all time reminds them of their honeymoon in Corsica, or of their family Chihuahua, don’t actually like music very much. I wanted mostly to write about what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs.”
What did everyone think of him purposely avoiding the time-place connection that we lean on so heavily in more personal forms of music writing? Instead, it’s all about loving the song regardless of context.
Henry Hauser (HH): I found it refreshing, but on the other hand, he certainly betrays his goal in certain instances. And where he does betray it, it’s actually very effective. For instance, when he’s talking about “Samba Pa It” (Santana) and losing his virginity, Ben Folds’ “Smoke” and the end of his first marriage, or even that silly reggae version of “Puff the Magic Dragon” and how his autistic son is forming a musical identity. When he does bring out that time-place connection, it’s all the more meaningful.
Steven Arroyo (SA): It’s almost like he wanted to do a scientific analysis of songs rather than explain what they’d be the perfect soundtrack to. But that’s impossible to do the entire time. Memories are going to come up. This book was essentially one long “the thing about songs is…” and I wasn’t expecting that. It wasn’t just 31 fragmented chapters about great songs. Some of them he hardly has a good thing to say about. It was such a three-dimensional analysis from both a personal and objective standpoint throughout, and I loved it.
Rachel Bailey (RB): I actually found the chapters in which he succeeds in talking about the songs and not what he brought to them to be some of the least interesting. Like the “You Had Time”/ “I’ve Had It” (Ani DiFranco/Aimee Mann) chapter. He talks in great length about what he thought was going on with them when they wrote the songs and what he thought they were thinking, and that was far less interesting than, say, the chapter on “Smoke” (Ben Folds) and why that song meant something to him. It’s what he brings to the songs, in the end, that makes the book so interesting.
Paula Mejia (PM): I thought it was refreshing to see a fiction writer try to carve out imaginative ways to write about music. Especially right now, with the Internet, it’s very easy to be saturated with content that’s very similar. It’s refreshing. He threads in some very personal and powerful stories, especially when he’s talking about his son. And what is powerful about music to begin with is the connection that you, as an individual, have to it.