Perhaps Songbook is an Oxymoron

Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity made me believe in reading fiction again after a long dry spell. I think that happens a lot with authors and readers. Something connects and the spark catches your attention and captures your imagination. It’s a feeling I remember having a lot in my teens and 20s and that got lost somewhere along the way to my then late 30s.

Even at the time the attraction was clearly the subject matter. Music geeks had never been enshrined between covers like that before. And even though they were obsessive they managed to transcend their fixations and connect with something bigger. I can quote song lyrics for hours so I understand what happens when you learn about love and life from 3 minute pop songs written by an acne faced kid too scared to leave his bedroom.

So when a friend passed me Songbook as a birthday present some years ago I received it with high hopes and the great fear that my love of the novel was at risk. Being prudent the book sat on the shelf for the better part of a decade, defying me with its faux Maxell C-90 design and odd size. (Really, it’s the size of a reel-to-reel box but has cassette labels. How confused is that?)

Finally I worked up the nerve to read it. The result: the novel is safe in my memory, but I think Hornby might not want to write about music in the first person again.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: trying to convey why 3 minutes of pop means something to you is like trying to explain fishing with a paintbrush. There’s a reason the professional critics dwell on sounds and solos and lyrics and I suspect it’s because the can’t find the words to capture what is essentially an emotional reaction.

So I learned a whole lot of things about Nick Hornby and what he thinks of certain bands. On some things I agree. On other’s he’s flat-out wrong. Case in point: he equates Neil Young with interminable guitar solos. Well, that’s sort of the point because they’re such bad solos they have no business going on as long as they do. I would have thought a lover of punk would have understood that.

And then there is this sad thing I just don’t understand. He writes of how orchestral music does nothing for him, that he’s never seen a  lark ascending. I read that and thought, “How sad.” To me, Vaughan Williams is quintessentially English Rural in the way Copland is American Rustic or Gershwin is American Urban. His music is visual or at least has a synesthetic effect on me as I see whole pastoral scenes while listening.

I’ve heard that Nick Hornby is releasing an album of songs he co-wrote with Ben Folds. Another act on whom we differ. I don’t think I’ll be searching it out.

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