I Read About It: Music, Food, Poetry, and Lifestyle Suggestions We’ve Taken from Literature

April 18, 2013 | 15 books mentioned 5 6 min read

coverI was recently reading Paper Towns by John Green, and the young characters happened upon John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on vinyl. One of them was unfamiliar with Coltrane, which prompted his friend to say, “Trane’s playing is literally the most convincing proof of God’s existence I’ve ever come across.” The next day I was listening to A Love Supreme at my desk over and over for hours.

It’s not the first time a work of art had steered me towards something new. After I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I went to the Art Institute to see a Renoir that one of the book’s (real-life) characters had owned. And I somewhat blame my penchant for living on a dime in small, urban apartments by how taken I was, as a 14-year-old living in Indiana, by that enchanting 90-second opening of An American in Paris.

So I put the question out to my Millions colleagues: What works of art have you been introduced to by other works of art? The books, music, and films we love can be like trusted friends, recommending new authors or introducing us to kimchi. We all know that art changes lives in major ways, but how has it changed your life in minor ways?

Janet Potter


Edan Lepucki: covercoverLiterature doesn’t often lure me to other art, though I am comfortable blaming The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats for stoking my childhood dream to live in an apartment building. How exotic and mysterious! (Because I grew up in L.A., snow seemed downright impossible, and I didn’t even think to long for it.) I once (er, twice) put ice cream in my coffee after reading Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love; in it, the coffee shop owner Bradley talks about how the sweet concoction brightens your day — it does. I have made tacos after reading Kate Christensen’s Trouble, and I’m looking forward to following recipes from her forthcoming book, which is, fittingly, a food memoir called Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. If I ever have a real down-and-out nervous breakdown,I plan to spend my nights sleeping on a chaise lounge by my swimming pool (which I shall also procure), a la Maria in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.

Sonya Chung: covercoverMy excuse is that I went to boarding school. We lived in a small New England town, and we had no television. This was during the late 80s, and pop culture essentially passed me by, especially music (I have not, to this day, seen MTV). Ever since, it’s been a kind of effort to connect with music, to organically happen upon what I like and want to listen to.

More often than not, it’s happened through film. I found Bonnie “Prince” Billy through the film Old Joy, The Cranberries via Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Aimee Mann via Magnolia, John Legend and The Fugees via Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Cat Stevens via Harold and Maude, Dianne Reeves via Good Night and Good Luck. I started listening to Eminem after 8 Mile, Pearl Jam after seeing Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, JT after The Social Network, more Bob Marley after seeing Marley, Bill Withers after Still Bill. It’s weird, I know — late to the party, possibly diluted, like reading the book after the movie comes out (and I haven’t even mentioned all of the music that I heard first on Glee). I suppose it’s my later-life version of that contextual thing that happens in youth: every song reminds you of a memorable night, or person, or emotion, and the music becomes a part of you, because you didn’t just listen to it, you experienced it; which is just how music, or a musician, sparks something for me through the medium of film — as an experience, a sense of interest or connection, that bears exploring. With good music, I figure, the party goes on; better late than never.

Nick Moran: covercoverMaybe I’m too suggestible, but I’ve a habit of absorbing bits of books I read. I used to think it was like literary osmosis — natural, spontaneous — but I’ve since noticed a primary trigger: food. In this respect, perhaps it’s more like literary Inception — involuntary, unconscious. Food references grab my attention even when they’re wildly inappropriate. I bought a doughnut right as I started reading Skippy Dies. I ordered fugu twice in Japan because I read People Who Eat Darkness on the plane over. I’ve tried to read on a full stomach, but it does me no good. Months later, these references might come back to me. It’s been over two years since I read Origins, but I’m still near-manic when I see pregnant women in public. Eat more salmon! I wish I could scream. (I’ve since disbarred myself from reading about childbirth.) The other day I finished reading The Westies, T.J. English’s salacious overview of Manhattan’s Irish mafia, and now I’m trying to eat a meal at all of the bars mentioned. Sometimes I reflect on this development shamefully. I really want to eat a meal where Mickey Featherstone shot a guy? And yet there’s nothing I can do. I am too easily swayed. I am biddable. One thing I know: it’ll get worse before it gets better. Next I’m reading The Master and Margarita. I’m told there are pickles. I’m told there are sausages.

Hannah Gersen: covercoverSeveral years ago, I fell under the spell of the poet Forrest Gander’s novel, As A Friend, which tells the story of an intense and ultimately tragic friendship between two men. At the center of the story is a charismatic young poet, Les, who everyone in the novel falls in love with, and who I quickly fell in love with, too. Some reviewers suggested that Les was based on the poet Frank Stanford, so I decided to track down some of his poems — it was my way of getting more of the Les character. His poems are intense and cinematic, full of dialogue and dialect, quick cuts and sneaky images. Death lurks at the edge of everything Stanford writes, but in his poems death is like a movie villain — you get a little thrill from seeing him.

Before reading As A Friend, I’d never heard of Stanford, but I soon learned that he was a favorite among poets, a cult figure who produced seven volumes of poetry before killing himself a few days before his 30th birthday. He grew up in Memphis and the Ozarks of Arkansas, an isolated mountain region, and his poems seem to come from a secret pocket of America. Stanford’s strangest and possibly most famous work is a long, messy epic called The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. I bought a copy of it, but admit I have never sat down and tried to read the whole thing in earnest, partially because it is so long (over 15,000 lines), but also because I think it might induce delirium. One day I’ll read it — actually, probably one night — but until then I am happy to reread Stanford’s shorter poems, as well as Gander’s As A Friend.

coverElizabeth Minkel: I was eighteen. I suppose that’s as good an excuse as any. But I found myself, just before Christmas my freshman year, making plans to leave a cloistered liberal arts college in New England and head to New York. To study jazz. Jazz. There might have been a guy involved. But by then, my obsession with the music had overshadowed any of that — I was listening to it constantly, reading about it and puzzling over it and romanticizing it, wasting all of my money at the used CD shop in town, until one day, I popped into the used bookstore across the street and found the book. I’d never heard of Geoff Dyer, funny to think of that now, but the title was enough: But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.

I read it without stopping; I took it all in one breath. It’s as uncategorizable as anything Dyer’s ever written, but the back cover bills it as a series of vignettes, and that’s good enough: the stories are meant as echoes of their subjects’ music: Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. It was the first one, about Lester Young — “He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left” — that got me. By the end, I was gone. But that was the funny thing: this book did the exact opposite of what I’d meant it to do when I’d picked it up. But Beautiful knocked my world back into orbit: it reminded me that I’d spent most of my life deeply enamored of books. This is the book that made me want to write — write anything at all. By the spring, I was an English major.

In the comments: Tell us about works of art that introduced you to other works of art.

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  1. “Eat more salmon! I wish I could scream. (I’ve since disbarred myself from reading about childbirth.)” – Nick Moran

    Mr. Moran’s response to this article is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read and I look forward to reading anything else he’s written.

    Oh, how I can relate to his secret shame at being easily swayed… think I’ve lived my whole life wandering from one susceptibility to another! Some hi-lites:

    Ave 9: Read about the ghostly “Devil Dog” — convince my 4th Grade class that the German Shepherd we pass every day on the way to St. Thomas is named “Satan” and will escape and suck out our souls. Get sent to front office.

    9th Grade: Read about Portofino, the Via Veneto, and Capri in pilfered copies of “Gourmet” magazine at motel where I work off the books as chamber maid. Buy Jackie O sunglasses and attempt to tan my ghostly Irish skin. Get terrible sunburn. Bonus: meet Italian couple at motel who arrive in chocolate-brown Bentley. Walk in on them while they are having sex in the afternoon, a concept I was not yet familiar with. They just smile.

    Age 21: Read every book ever read about New York City. Go to New York City and walk for 16 hours. Become extremely dehydrated. Determine that New York City is a giant machine that will beat me mercilessly and spit me out. Rinse and repeat for the next 20 years on a regular basis.

    Age 38 (Ah, the shame) Know “The Oregon Trail” sample game at Barnes and Noble is not real, but keep returning to try to get my wagon train to Oregon before my family starves to death. They never make it. “Know” that Colonial Williamsburg is “not real” during my visit there. Squelch overwhelming desire to rescue Sara, the indentured servant from Liverpool, and bring her home with me.

    Age 45 (having accepted my nature) read every book ever written about Tokyo. Go to Tokyo. Go to fall harvest festival and become convinced saturine elderly man in brown cashmere jacket with large security team is Yakuza. Continue to stare in fascination and wonder about this. Realixe large security team has “made” me.
    Blend in with small group of elderly Japanese men who are knocking sticks together. Wander with them from food stall to food stall beating my sticks. See hanging masks of pudgey Harvest Moon Goddess with fat, round pink face. Realize we look alike. Enjoy fair.

    Mr. Moran, I say we embrace our susceptibilites! No more shame!

    Maureen Murphy (“Moe Murph”)

  2. Patrick Suskind’s “Perfume” led me, as a chemist, to combine the art of perfumery with the art of horticulture.

  3. Last summer I read the article “Exploring Paris Through Children’s Books” in the Wall Street Journal. The author Liam Callanan recounts his travels through Paris with his wife and young children, following the paths of characters from 3 children’s books: Madeline (Bemelmans), The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Selnick), and The Red Balloon (Lamorisse). The timing of this article was perfect! My husband, 2 teenage daughters and I were overwhelmed with planning our 2 days in Paris, a city we had never visited. My daughters loved the Madeline series when they were small and my husband and I had memorized some of the books from reading them aloud so often. So we crossed the Louvre off our schedule, freeing a day, and wandered Paris instead, following in Madeline’s footsteps, adding in some of our own destinations along the way. Armed with virtually no knowledge of French, but Google Maps on our phones, and with the assistance and kindness of the French, English-speaking and not, we found every destination, including the “old house in Paris that was covered in vines” in the 3rd arrondissement. To fuel up after our adventures, we ate a few blocks away at Chez Paul on the Rue de Charonne for an authentic French meal. Magnifique!

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