Who was the first person to pick up a book, dust its cover, thumb its pages, and think “you know, this really should be more than a book — there should be some, I dunno, music or something to go with this, too, to make it, er, immersive?”
The historical record shows it might have been the real Cyrano de Bergerac who first tired of the basic “no talking, no singing, no dancing” book. In 1657, de Bergerac wrote a story in which, among such useful brainstorms as rockets to the moon and solar energy, he detailed a new kind of codex, one where the reader only needed to “wind a spring to hear one or more chapters or a whole book”:
“When I opened a box, I found inside something made of metal, somewhat like our clocks, full of an endless number of little springs and tiny machines. It was indeed a book, but it was a miraculous one that had no pages or printed letters. It was a book to be read not with eyes but with ears. When anyone wants to read, he winds up the machine with a large number of keys of all kinds. Then he turns the indicator to the chapter he wants to listen to. As though from the mouth of a person or a musical instrument come all the distinct and different sounds that the upper-class Moon-beings use in their language.”
Since de Bergerac let fly with this fantasy, the book-that-is-more-than-a-book has been a sideline obsession with a certain segment of publisher-inventors — usually outsiders of the book industry.
Our own century’s publishing crisis has opened a wide space in which many would-be authors and publishers have re-thought what a book can be and what it can do. This column has covered several ingenious approaches to the elegant invention that’s remained the cradle of civilization for over 500 years. My favorite ideas, like Thomas Aquinas Maguire’s single-panel edition of The Wild Swans, tend to simplify and work toward capturing the essence of that unfathomly intimate exchange that happens between reader and author.
But there are, of course, other ways to re-think the book. And some people have gone the Cyrano route: addition by addition, attaching metal springs and tiny machines to an invention some might call perfect as it is. Two examples that found my inbox recently both use music to expand upon what the reader finds on the page.
The first to reach me was The Fourteenth Colony by Jason T. Lewis, a singer-songwriter whose groups Star City and Sad Iron Music have attracted admirers of the genre known as alt-country. Lewis began his novel in 2004. Along the way, he began to wonder what it would be like to write songs in the voice of his protagonist, John Martin, a road-worn musician who, proverbially and perhaps literally, has reached the end of his bar tab.
The music Lewis wrote to accompany his novel doesn’t advance the plot, so we’re not talking about a perfect-bound operetta here. John’s eight songs work as a sort of dirt path into the train track-girdled world Lewis credibly creates in The Fourteenth Colony. The music is here to help along the author’s wish to bring a more immersive experience to the reader. And to that end, the project is successful.
The novel itself boasts a pleasingly taut prose style. Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy appear to be authors whose work Lewis is intimately familiar with. Lewis’s West Virginia, where the story is set, is a dark and murky place — a backwoods, of sorts: a shit town that seeks to suffocate John’s artistic temperament.
But the novel’s real hook, so to speak, are the insights into the boom-bust world of the music industry around the turn of the millennium, the most compelling theme being the questions of intellectual property that dog John (he’s returns to West Virginia encumbered by master tapes he recorded on a major label’s dime — music John’s written that he can’t release because, from a legal standpoint, he doesn’t actually own). The part of the plot tangled up in family strife is less compelling, somehow, and comes with the strong whiff of stale angst.
It’s harder to weigh the merits of the second musical book to find me recently. I Am Stu Pitt is the soda-drunk brainchild of Danny deBruin, a cartoonist who has worked for Cracked, among other other publications. Like Lewis in The Fourteenth Colony, deBruin has constructed his story around a character who has a musical soul. Also like Lewis, deBruin has written songs to bring an added dimension to his fictional world. But unlike John Martin’s songs, Stuart Pitt’s tunes are a send-up, not a celebration, of the musical imagination. That’s probably just my polite and stuffy way of saying I Am Stu Pitt is very, very silly. (The book’s pre-emptive strategy for self-defense is right there in the title.)
Stuart Pitt is a 40-year-old supermarket stocker who dreams of rock stardom. After hours, the store comes alive with pop culture references (The A-Team, Star Wars, and other mostly ‘80s fare) and the kind of stupid-smart humor Jack Handey perfects in each of his New Yorker stores and nearly everyone else fumbles. From the flat, near-primary colors deBruin uses in his illustrations to the noisiness of the twisty-turny stories, this is not a work for readers who delight in subtlety and nuance.
The music embedded in the eBook is more fun than the stories. The tune’s jauntiness reminds me somewhat of the ‘70s kids show Schoolhouse Rock and includes legendary ’90s band Buffalo Tom’s frontman, Bill Janovitz.
But overall, the hyperactivity of deBruin’s “comic strip novel” reminded me of TV. Which means there’s most definitely an audience for deBruin’s vision. And it may very well be a lucrative audience. It’s just that, well, I’m not in that audience: TV tires me out very quickly.
Call it different strokes for different folks, but the combination of book and music — or book and movie; or book and laser show; or book and guy shouting the text at you while you thumb through the pages — seems to violate what makes this uni-medium, the book, so precious. Considered among all our art and media options, the traditional book demands the most from us in order for it to work. You can pay half-attention to a complicated piece of music or a TV drama, yet they will run without you.
Books, on the other hand, don’t do anything: they just are. You don’t press play on a book: you must animate it with your mind. The only way to start one up is to open its covers, find a patch of text, and focus your comprehension skills there. This makes the reading experience a uniquely collaborative one among the author, the typesetter, and the reader. Books are powered only by our reading and — just as valuable — our misreading them. It’s too easy to overlook the elegance of this aesthetic miracle. And Cyrano’s gaffe — the longing for a book-that-is-more-than-a-book — often inspires a reading-experience-that-is-less-than-a-reading-experience.