Listening to music while reading doesn’t work for everyone, just like listening to music while writing doesn’t work for everyone (Philip Pullman went so far as to say, “…you can’t write with music playing, and anyone who says he can is either writing badly, or not listening to the music, or lying.”) Can you imagine, for instance, trying to slog through Ulysses with Nicki Minaj on the stereo? Who knows which, book or song, would be ruined indefinitely by the pairing. At least for me, more often than not, music becomes white noise as I dive headlong into the fictional world at hand, the lesser of two evils as it drowns out the guided bus tours and offensive musical choices made by the commuters stuck in traffic outside my apartment (“Talk Dirty to Me” is a plague, at least on my household). Sometimes, though, with some serendipitous song change on a shuffled playlist, a song comes on that so truly captures the rhythm or sentiment of the novel I’m reading that it forces its way into the novel, setting the mood and enhancing my reading experience in synesthetic symbiosis. In these instances, I end up playing the song on repeat for the duration of the novel, so that years later, when the song comes on the radio or is in a car commercial, I am transported back into the novel and who I was when I was reading it. Below are four (yes, so few for a listicle, but, as I said, examples are rare) transcendent pairings that go together like wine and cheese.
1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck paired with “When You Were Young” by The Killers
I was fifteen and baking under the sun on the beach of Lake Tahoe, fully-dressed because I thought that I was too soft and pale for bathing suits, that the sight of me might disgust and/or blind the other lake-goers. Needing to escape both my family and my own brain, I spent the week with my headphones in, letting the weight of Steinbeck’s epic crowd out everything else. “When You Were Young,” with its own epic presumptions and biblical allusions, helped me hurtle through Steinbeck’s Salinas. I experienced the novel’s sprawling, but patterned scope in a visceral, blistering way; I could practically taste the dustiness. Even the 2008 Olympics commercial from Nike can’t dissociate East of Eden and “When You Were Young” for me; every time the song plays, I remember closing my eyes as I closed the book, the sun burning through my eyelids, thinking it would all be worth it to experience that redemptive love for myself someday and wondering how I could go about getting my first kiss (it took another three years).
Another epic novel, Middlesex covers so much geographical and emotional ground that I hardly know now why “Kim and Jessie” became the novel’s theme song for me– how could a novel about a intersex Greek youth growing up in Michigan and a song from a French synthpop band pair so well? And yet, whiling away the weeks between when all my friends had left for their semester schools and I would leave for my quarter system college, M83’s kitschy sound and foreboding lyrics resonated with my reading of Callie’s early teenage years in suburban Grosse Pointe, particularly her infatuation with the Obscure Object. Having, by then, a first kiss under my belt and thus some relief from the blind hormonal yearnings that plague high schoolers, “Kim and Jessie” delivered just the right amount of nostalgia to complement Eugenides’ tender, unflinching exploration of self-discovery.
Home for winter break my freshman year of college, I was feeling a little forlorn; I hadn’t managed the transition from an all-girls’ high school to a co-ed college (let alone dorm) with quite the grace I had imagined. Wanting to read something wholesome and life-affirming, and having read too much Austen for college English classes already, I picked up Shulman’s Enthusiasm. PG without being dumb or saccharine, it’s a high school rom-com with allusions to Pride and Prejudice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Fidelity” proved a perfect background– Spektor is heart-broken but not bitter and reserved with a rich interior life, just like Enthusiasm‘s Julie and just like I wanted to be. Now, “Fidelity” reminds me how lucky I am, almost four years later, to have tried to emulate the pair because, like Julie at least, I got my own Mr. Darcy after all.
Probably the most psychologically disturbing book I’ve ever read, Malina was on the syllabus for my tutorial when I studied abroad at Oxford. “I have a feeling you’re going to really like it,” my tutor said, and she was right. Who knows what that says about me, but, like MS MR’s “Hurricane,” the novel is relentlessly dark; there is no redemption. Detailing a female writer’s emotional response to two men and her lapses into uncontrollable, cryptic despair, the novel is hardly a rewarding reading experience. Except, I still remember the recognition I felt when the stream of consciousness narrative crystallized into a phrase I could grab on to: “Smoking and waiting, waiting and smoking” seemed to me the perfect expression of romantic malaise. If you think you have the mental fortitude to take on Bachmann’s novel, make sure to play “Hurricane” while you read– it will help steel you for the rocky road ahead.