Books and music are officially in. Not that they were ever out, but lately by virtue of mass social media saturation books have emerged as defining the youthful sphere of The Cool Intellectual.
Literature’s unique intersection with music scenes, both past and present, allows for a deeper understanding and communication of an artist’s vision, productions and influences. What can’t be sung in the lyrics of a song, or plucked on the strings of a guitar, falls onto the pages of a book — the sentences spanning the sonic chasm arriving at a richer and more nuanced story. Below are 3 books that push the limits of what writing and music mean to each other, the people making it and their audience at large.
Yoko Ono — “Grapefruit”
“Grapefruit” makes traditional anthologies of poems seem like tiny appetizers for Yoko Ono’s delectable main course. The work presents itself more as an all-encompassing bucket list that lays out a checklist for living a full life rather than a casual expression of emotion.
In the late ‘60s, around the time the book was first released, Ono held membership in the conceptual art group Fluxus, where she pioneered one of the group’s hallmark practices: event scoring. Event scoring is a concept that recontextualizes objects and experiences from the mundanity of everyday life and reshapes them into small artful performances, the essential premise of Ono’s writing.
Told entirely in an imperative tone, “Grapefruit” instructs the reader to count their lover’s belly wrinkles, leave a trail of peas wherever they go and stop talking to someone once they envision a stranger being covered in snow. Focusing on the transformative power of imagination, Ono reminds readers of the glee found by choosing to smile at the little things.
Michelle Zauner — “Crying in H Mart”
If there is one thing Michelle Zauner knows how to do, it is to write the most heart-breaking, earth-shattering, mind-contorting pieces of media.
As the frontwoman of Japanese Breakfast, Zauner is no stranger to the creative process required for writing an album. But it was not until 2018 upon the publication of the short essay “Crying in H Mart” in The New Yorker that her writing prowess fully penetrated the mainstream.
The piece chronicles the emotional battles she fought within the aisles of the Korean grocery store, H-Mart, after losing her mother to cancer. The essay garnered critical and social acclaim and ended up becoming the foundational first chapter of her full-length book by the same name.
The book’s tender tales on the clumsiness of grief are underscored by deeper questions about culture, loss and language. The success of this novel lies not in Zauner’s attempts to answer these questions, but rather in her fearless exploration of them.
The memoir spreads wide throughout Zauner’s life from her birth in Korea to her childhood in Eugene, Oregon, unpacking her biracial identity and how it contributes to her self-image. The narrative of the book oscillates between flashbacks to past experiences and the dreary aftermath of the loss of the loved one. Zauner speaks to a greater sense of identity — anyone who has ever felt disconnected from their culture, experienced life-altering grief or loved a family’s signature recipe, can read her voice and find warmth in its glistening embrace.
Patti Smith — “Devotion (Why I Write)”
“Devotion” by Patti Smith is for people who keep saying they will read a book and never do. Also, people who read Smith’s “Just Kids” and then just … stopped. Clocking in at 112 pages, the deceptively short novella is punk and conceptual artist Patti Smith’s reckoning with why she writes through explicit and implicit prose.
“Devotion” opens with a marvelous voyage through Smith’s travels and the people she meets along the way, their wistful and plaintive cries setting the stage for the haunting story to come. The second act of “Devotion” features a young orphan’s passion for ice skating and older men with a touch of Camusian absurdity.
Although the work sometimes struggles to convey clarity, the marriage between the two halves allows for a novel inspection of humanity and how one woman’s ruthless obsession with the manifestation of life as art brings meaning to the world at large.