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Dancing With My Shelf: A Case For Book Soundtracks

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I'll admit, when I first thought about creating book soundtracks, I was sure I had invented the concept. It was one of those two-in-the-morning revelations that seem completely game-changing at the time, like my idea for pre-sliced watermelon (already available at Whole Foods) or recreational space travel (already available to Paris Hilton).

I had recently created a musical playlist for my first novel, "The House of Tomorrow," for the New York Times Paper Cuts blog, when the next logical question came to mind: what if this collection of songs was a real CD or a series of downloads that came with the actual book? What if readers could listen to these tunes in between chapters, or after they finished the novel? What if I am some kind of genius for inventing this?

I still think the idea is good one, but it wasn't mine. As it turns out, authors have been playing around with this direct intersection of music and literature for quite some time. Nick Hornby immediately jumps to mind as the godfather of this phenomenon. Even though "High Fidelity" didn't get an official soundtrack until it was made into a movie, the whole book reads as a kind of novel-as-ultimate-playlist, complete with musical references from Wham! to the Jesus and Mary Chain. It's hard to imagine the ensuing explosion of author playlists without Hornby's bittersweet taxonomy of rock. In the years since, authors have been creating book inspired mixes for their personal websites or other music/lit sites like Large-Hearted Boy, where you can find authors as diverse as Chuck Klosterman and Margot Livesey getting in on the fun.

But a playlist is one thing, and actual music is another. Recently, Joe Pernice, both a musician and a novelist, went so far as to record a single for Sub Pop Records by the fictional band in his first novel, "It Feels So Good When I Stop." Frank Portman of the band the Mr. T. Experience did something similar with his young adult novel "King Dork." He recorded the tunes and then made them available for a listen on Amazon.

My book also has a fictional band at its core, and a handful of wildly inappropriate punk songs to boot. The band is called The Rash, and it is made up of the book's two main characters: one sensitive shut-in who lives with his grandmother in a geodesic dome, and one chain-smoking delinquent with a recent heart transplant. The only thing they share is an unabashed love for the transformative power of noise. My job as a writer, of course, was to create that noise and that love on the page. But still, how cool would it be if the reader found that feeling in both the book and through a pair of headphones?

If you think about the way movie soundtracks work, the songs only appear in the film for a few seconds (with the exception of musicals or teen movies). Yet, if you really love a film, something incantatory happens when you turn the soundtrack on. Suddenly, you're able to conjure a feeling that grabbed you in the movie. In a sense, you are completely re-living the experience of the story in a condensed musical form. And this time you can dance to it in the privacy of your own home (clothing optional).

This could easily be true of books. I've read so many novels that either focused on music directly as a subject, or touched on it in a tangential way. What better way to cure the blues of finishing a book you loved, than to revisit it occasionally with a full-on soundtrack? I've often wished I could listen in to the musical education of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, the main characters in Jonathan Lethem's "Fortress of Solitude." Or hear the sounds of the Spokane Garage Band in Sherman Alexie's "Reservation Blues." And while I'm at it, why not a shot of bebop to go with my Kerouac?

In nearly every way I can think of, I'm glad that books aren't movies. I don't want them to be shorter, flashier, or played by Jude Law. I don't want them to sell me Sprite or have alternate endings in paperback. But, maybe in this one way, literature has something to learn from its more enterprising cousin.

So until the industry catches up, I urge you to try the experiment yourself. The next time you read a book you like with numerous references to music, compile them into a playlist and see if the feeling comes back. If you need somewhere to start, there's a book coming out in March called "The House of Tomorrow" that might work.

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