There was a time when a young lad, afflicted with moths in his stomach over a pretty face beyond his pay grade, was shit out of luck. That is to say, he was not able to churn out a carefully crafted mix tape complete with hand-drawn cover and precious chicken-scratch liner notes. How did the youth of stocking and wig times deal with not being able to express their feelings through a Guided By Voices song? I guess back in olden-times you could write a sonnet or fight another guy with an extremely thin sword to declare your love, but thankfully those weird days are over and done with. It got me thinking about mix tapes and their simple premise: a compilation of things you like all in one spot. Everyone who makes tapes comes at it from different angles and purposes; you can tackle a mix tape like Stephen Hawking or like a nihilist. It’s egalitarian and it’s fun and weird and six times in ten even rewarding!
Without trying to seem highfalutin or diminish my hoi polloi roots, here is my caveat drenched mix-tape in the form of chapters of books, something perhaps a teenager in yon log cabin or lore already thought about in 1846. Obviously your average song is a self-contained entity and can be enjoyed in isolation and in strangely ordered playlists. You can’t really do that with your favorite chapters. Not without enough context to kill a horse. But forget about that. Focus on the words you wish you could share with someone if you could, the words that molded you. Some of the things that molded you are dumb and some are profound but they all make sense to you and wanting to share just a tiny bit of that to someone important seems a natural law. This is of course not meant to be a compilation of the best chapters in the best books ever written. Just a few things I like, in a strange order. The way it ought to be.
Moby Dick; Or The Whale by Herman Melville, Chapter One: Loomings
There’s no shame in starting a tape with a well-travelled classic. You don’t have to start every mix tape with a Wu Tang Clan joint. Sometimes you want to ease into things with Leonard Cohen or maybe some Hawaiian music. Maybe we as a society of Wikipedia and irony are over-saturated with the obvious and with things like “Call me Ishmael,” but let’s renounce our social capital and just accept that Moby Dick is the Great American Novel and that this chapter is kindling patiently waiting for its own special inferno. Almost NOTHING happens in this chapter and it is brilliant.
Zinger: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Goddamn Herman, goddamn!
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, Chapter Four
This is the quintessential coming-of-age Japanese novel that everyone who has ever listened to an interview with Conor Oberst or Elliott Smith (appreciate those turn of the century pop-culture references!) knows and loves. But that is okay. It is a great book, told simply and with thunder, with none of the weird and sometimes distracting magical realism that Murakami would later become enamored with. Chapter Four is a lengthy chapter of many movements, but the crux of it is the burgeoning friendship/ romance between our hero and the dramatic and chatty Midori. She’s a free spirit with real altruistic ferocity, but shackled by slowly revealed handicaps. Like our first track, mood trumps plot. But that is a good thing. It is just beautifully written sentences about two young people with a lot of other stuff going on in their lives getting to know each other.
Zinger: “The theme is that I have nothing.”
Double Duce by Aaron Cometbus, Enter Jagoff
Aaron Cometbus of Crimpshrine may be an indifferent drummer, but he is a damn good writer. His life’s work is his per-zine, the eponymous Cometbus. This chapter is the equivalent of mix tape filler. Sometimes you need an oddity on a tape, or something lighthearted. It keeps everything uncertain. The main thrust of this chapter is Aaron and his gang meeting a guy they dub “Jagoff,” who talked “some weird bullshit.” Perfect.
Zinger: “He had this horrible way of talking.”
The Joke by Milan Kundera, Part 3 (Ludvik)
My friend Mike has loaned me probably 40 books in the time we’ve known each other and I may have read two and a half. He is a guy who reads books and I am a guy who stares listlessly at the ceiling. The Joke, Kundera’s first novel, is the beautiful outlier to my study of chandeliers and water stains. Though this entire section was scrubbed for time constraints and possible tertiary plot value in the film adaptation, these pages are the ventricles of the book. They deal with recent work-camp drudge (and pariah from the Communist Party) slowly falling for and subsequently “consummating” a relationship with a local girl named Lucie. This section of the novel even inspired a song by the notoriously un-prolific post-punk band The Fall! Scrapped from the movie or not, this has always seemed to me the part of the book where we finally achieve liftoff. And we’re flipping off all our enemies as we fly away.
Zinger: “A great deal has been said about love at first sight; I am perfectly aware of love’s tendency to make a legend of itself, turn its beginnings into myths … but I have no doubt there was a kind of clairvoyance at work … Lucie revealed herself the way religious truth reveals itself.”
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Jon’s 4th Chapter
I read A Game of Thrones at the tender, pimply age of 14. That means I have had this book on my shelves for half of my life. It’s even inspired the first of my extremely annoying tattoos. This book is goddamn REPLETE with epic scenes, but the introduction of fat and bumbling coward Samwell Tarly makes the cut on this particular book mix tape for the sweetness in the muck. The chapter ends with a thoughtful look at inverted notions of masculinity in a medieval society, but begins with something simpler. Just marginalized scumbags at the end of the world being noble. We take it for granted that broody bastard Jon Snow bends toward heroics at all hours. There’s no reason that Pyp and Grenn, weak smartass and bumbling oaf respectively, should defend the crying fat boy in the mud from the swords of their fellow scumbags, but that is just what they do. This is where shit gets sentimental and where you surrender yourself to it.
Zinger: “This will be uglier than a whore’s ass.”
2666 by Roberto Bolano, The Part About Fate
This is the song that you just heard. It might not stand the test of time, but right here and right now you are desperate to share it. This book is a leviathan of tiny words and serpentine sentences, divided into thematically linked chunks. The novel’s third chunk focuses on a reporter for a Harlem newspaper that is sent to Mexico to cover a boxing match after the usual sports correspondent dies. This reporter is named Oscar Fate, which is an excellent, excellent name. The book is as thick as the Bible, and jigsaws your guts in a myriad of slow and deliberate ways. There is an incendiary sermon by a fictionalized Bobby Seale, the great mystery of the 200 murdered women, and dystopian conversations about where to get a snack. It is the sweet science and the wisdom of the lowborn. The song you can’t explain to save your life but can’t ignore.
Zinger: “I like Denzel Washington.”
Grendel by John Gardener, Chapter 12
Grendel is a re-telling of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective and it is fucked up, and weird, and wonderful. It’s an entirely new dimension, like taking a wrong turn and discovering black metal concerts in a snowy forest. It also happens to be hilarious. Grendel’s interior monologue reads like a depressed philosophe: a lot of exclamation points and daily realizations that literally everyone around him is insane. This is the chapter that Beowulf kills Grendel, and it is what the Ancient Greeks would call a “doozy.”
Zinger: “Poor Grendel’s had an accident … So may you all.”
Preacher #64 by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Speaking of Great American things, Ennis and Dillon put together the Great American Comic Book and how it is not a runaway hit on HBO by now is the Great American Shame. This issue is the introspective lull before the grenade you’ve been hiding in your mouth explodes. In a San Antonio bar, the titular Preacher confronts his former best friend (an Irish vampire), about his various sins and lies, and the smashed and broken people he has left in his wake. This includes the ultimate betrayal, the seduction of the Preacher’s lady. They don’t come to blows (not yet), but the barstool tension is suffocating, sad, and penetrating. It shouldn’t be so heartbreaking to watch a magical man of God and a damn vampire sit at a bar and realize that their friendship is completely destroyed… but it is.
Zinger: “Damn near a hundred years you been on this Earth an’ it ain’t made you one bit smarter. All you done’s get better an’ better at bein’ a asshole.”
Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, Chapter 2
I find much of this book unreadable, but that could be because I have no interest in the shenanigans of the Butthole Surfers. However, the Minutemen chapter is pretty excellent. D. Boon is greatly missed in this polarized and idiotic dark age of politics. He would have ripped Rush Limbaugh to shreds a dozen times by now. And not with music.
Zinger: “I think one of our problems with radio is that we don’t write songs, we write rivers.”
Ask The Dust by John Fante, Chapter 10
Ask the Dust became my favorite book in about four seconds. Arturo Bandini is all id and super-ego, a curmudgeon for all seasons. So much of the story is internal, the bogs in his brain, his hilarious denunciations of the dimwits he has to put up with on a daily basis, his longing for Camilla Lopez. This chapter is a just a slice of life: he talks to a neighbor, argues with a priest, drinks, and recalls a conversation with two girls who hailed from Minnesota. It is as well executed as the perfect hanging. It’s my closer.
Zinger: “So have your champagne, because I love you both, and you too Vivian, even if your mouth looks like it had been dug out with raw fingernails and your old child’s eyes swim in blood written like mad sonnets.”
Goddamn. Like many good intentions and birthday parties, this turned into somewhat of a buzzkill! Perhaps it just proves that hypothetical book mix tapes that would not make sense anyway are simply not meant to be. I’ll turn my attention now to compiling easier and more fulfilling things, like My Favorite Scenes From Episodes of The Wire That I Didn’t Like, or the 10 Best Ways I Have Been Broken Up With.
No. Really though. What’s your book mix tape?