The Soundtrack of Our Books

January 5, 2012 | 4 books mentioned 16 5 min read

The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.”

Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption — anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience.

coverAt readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall.

When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests.

“There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour.

coverNew Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics — too distracting — but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.”

coverThe novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on in September as an audio book — it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.”

What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel.

While senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.”

By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says.

Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.”

But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners.

Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.”

Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey

is a writer living in New York. She has just completed her first novel, about a young woman’s search for identity in Boston’s indie music scene.


  1. I’ve been using music in my writing for years, making private soundtracks to listen to while I write.
    At first the choices were to conjure an atmosphere – a shimmering desert, the bustle and flash of an exotic Indian market. They had to be lyricless – words were too distracting.
    Then one day, head immersed in a couple of tricky characters, a song sneaked out of the radio and told me the confusion they were feeling. From then on, my soundtracks started to drag in pop songs I’d ignored, bands I never really took much notice of. Don’t they say that when you’re in love every song seems to be about you? When you’re consumed by a novel, every song worms into a corner of its world.
    When that novel was published last year, I wrote about the secret music behind its making. Then other authors told me they did this too – so I invited them to write about it on my blog. It’s fascinating – more illuminating and visceral than anything else the writer says about the novel. Some of the blog’s readers now cue up the soundtracks and listen to them as they read the posts.
    Who was it who said writing about music is like dancing about architecture? I can’t agree.

  2. Hate to sound old fashioned, but there’s absolutely no reason for me to have sound accompanying my reading. When I read, all I want to hear is the sound of the author’s words in my own head.

    I have enough exposure to people jabbering in public on their cell phones! Going home to a quiet room and reading a book in silence is like heaven to me, and I have no intention of giving that up.

  3. Author Joseph Mattson and psychedelic folk master Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) were pioneers and a bit ahead of all of this with their excellent 2009/2010 project EMPTY THE SUN, a novel by Joseph Mattson which includes a soundtrack to the book by Six Organs of Admittance–an actual album written specifically for the book, to score the book, like music composed for a film, so to speak. The paperback comes with a CD of the soundtrack, and Barnacle Books did an amazing vinyl LP limited edition format with an album/coffee table-size/12″ x 12″ printing of the novel.

    AND, it’s all done in a very elegant manner–you don’t have to listen to the music while reading the book or anything of the such, they are more complements to each other, the album written for the book but not to distract from the book. Also, the album stands alone on its own as well, but when you read the one and then listen to the other it’s clear that they fit together as some seriously bad ass art.

    The book is excellent, was up for a bunch of awards and has garnered tons of praise, yet still went under the radar for a lot of people. Paperback is still in print, hopefully Mattson and Six Organs of Admittance (and Barnacle Books) will get some retroactive kudos now that Mattson’s THE SPEED CHRONICLES (Akashic Books, part of their new drug series) is blowing people away and getting the reviews/press that Empty the Sun deserved…

    I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about hybridization of books/music, and I hope anyone interested in such investigates Empty the Sun, one of my favorite novels of the past few years whether or not it came with a soundtrack, but a true innovation too often missed in the recent articles about literature and sound.

  4. The challenge when incorporating music, I think, is the copyright issue. If we quote lyrics we have to get a release. I would think a CD would be terrific to issue, but it would require collaboration between publishers. Spotify could be a way around the issue of including music with the writing, but if we incorporate music lyrics into the writing, it’s a bit trickier. I’d love it if people had experiences/suggestions for an easier way around this issue.

  5. Really late to this…
    House of Leaves with Poe’s Haunted. Seems obvious, being the work of the Danielewski siblings with crossover concepts, but both are brilliant.

    And as I told them both when they toured together:
    Cryptonomicon with Radiohead’s OK Computer.

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