by James Cassar
In my formative years (which arguably haven’t ended if you judge maturity by a lack of pop-punk T-shirts), there was one central music book in my life – Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I type this six years removed from reading that for the first time, and thankfully I’m mostly cleansed from that mixtape-heavy acid bath bubbling with Ayn Rand and awkward freshman year ghosts still fidgeting from an itchy homecoming dance suit. That was a really long sentence, but so was the four-year sentence I served in Perks Prison. One day, a light struck through the dirty windows slick with manic pixie dream girl lipstick and I was handed, much like Joseph Smith, a book – well, actually five really great music books. I’ve been commissioned to share them with you. I don’t prophet from this. (I also don’t profit from this music book I wrote in high school. It’s pretty bad.)
Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield
I learned a few things from reading a book about mixtapes that wasn’t narrated by a ninth-grader. The first was that the best time to unleash a new tape (or playlist or CD-R that you burn in your underwear) rolled around when it came time to wash the dishes. The second was that Big Star’s “Thirteen” is one of the greatest love songs of all time (a fact immortalized by this covers EP I recorded in my former roommate’s attic for a girl I used to know). The third is that WTJU is a community radio station in Charlottesville, Virginia. These three facts are woven into a memoir by a Rolling Stone writer that is shrewd and utterly devastating. This masterful autobiographical snapshot is the reason I live two minutes from WTJU, but I can’t say I can dish out clean plates.
King Dork by Frank Portman
“James, that book is for young adults, you Twitter-loving bologna-monger!” First of all, bologna rules (I don’t know what’s in it, but that’s probably a good thing) and this highly verbose piece of adolescence is written by the principal member of influential Bay Area punk band The Mr. T Experience. And just because this book shares a crucial John Green motif in common – the awkward first-person narrator spilling out Pulitzer-primed phrases like a broken syrup carafe – doesn’t mean it sucks. While this book is essentially a music-drenched homage to The Catcher in the Rye (as much as its protagonist would like to assure you that book is awful), it’s witty, mature and a lot of fun to tear through.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Part of me thinks much like Love is a Mix Tape, Chabon shares ties to Charlottesville because I’m positive I’ve seen this book under “Local Favorites” in the University of Virginia Bookstore and displayed prominently in our local record store, Melody Supreme. Regardless, this novel is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (another excellent read, but I left it off this list because it’s pretty canonized in this very small subset of literature) crossed with Empire Records’ big-box chain vs. indie store subplot and then married to a loving look into multicultural identity. It’s awesome, and if you doubt Chabon’s chops behind the writer’s desk, he’s won a multitude of awards justifying his work across a handful of genres.
Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo by Andy Greenwald
I wrote a paper on emo for my Media Theory and Criticism class last semester. (No, seriously – read it.) I cited a few arguments from this book, whose author wrote the biting foreword to Everybody Hurts, another near-textbook on the early waves of emo. It focuses on emo’s rise from the ashes of a nascent D.C. hardcore scene and culminates in a meditation on teenage angst. It’s fascinating if you know anything about Saves the Day (or their hellish label, Vagrant), their doe-eyed touring buddy Dashboard Confessional, or the early-2000s preoccupation with Napster.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The reason I’m closing with yet another young adult pick is because like King Dork, this selection carries with it a weight that totally belies the fact its target demographic has probably never really used a cassette-ready Walkman. (That being said, you should buy tapes from the label I co-own, Near Mint.) This novel may have some of Perks’ beloved (or barf-inducing) framework – the unlikely romance, the checkered childhood, and of course, the mixtape mania that I refuse to let die in my own tortured-artist story – but it’s alternating-viewpoints narrative style, slick characters, and deft use of narrative time is formidable and frankly, quite impressive.
Crack one of these open as soon as you can. It’ll take longer than your average album listenthrough, but most records don’t have novel ideas.