“So many books, so little time.” - Frank Zappa.

The voracious reader, the ebullient book fan, the edgy eccentric, the pithy polymath – what better characteristics are there for the process of songwriting? It was just over 20 years this week that I was lucky enough to be present at a recording, in the old BBC TV Centre, of an early edition of BBC2’s Later with Jools Holland, now of course a cornerstone of British music TV for many a discerning and curious music lover. Elvis Costello, no slacker on literary reference and wordplay, was on the bill, but the showstealing highlight was the still relatively young band Radiohead, who had gigged for years, but were just beginning to break it big with The Bends, powerfully performing from that now classic album. In the short breaks between their songs, a friend with me at the time remarked how amusing and odd it was that frontman Thom Yorke didn’t busy himself with checking his guitar, or disappeared backstage for drink or drugs, as is expected of the self-respecting rock star. Instead he sat alone on the edge of the stage, quietly reading a book.

Thom Yorke of Radiohead
A younger Thom Yorke of Radiohead back in the day. No stranger to a sneaky read between songs … Photograph: Mick Hutson/Redferns

But of course, there is nothing strange about that at all. Itchily intelligent and Oxford-educated, Yorke was simply upfront and unashamed about liking books, something not rare at all for many songwriters, but less seen in the then 90s laddish scene in which Morrissey seemed to stand out like a bemused puritanical scholar on a monasterial rock, surrounded by a sea of writhing hedonists. Morrissey more recently chose his autobiography to be published as a Penguin Classic in homage to his reading habits. But behind the scenes books have always been read, and ideas gained, on the road, on the park bench or in the bedroom, by musicians, for many forms of stimulation. As Game of Thrones author George RR Martin put it: “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”

So welcome then to the Readers Recommend library, bigger than the Bodleian in Oxford, more stunning than the Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, and with more angles than the edgy architecture of the Seattle Central Library in Washington. Why? Because our library is infinite, a collective emporium that not only contains music, but this week, by association, shelves of finely bound volumes spiralling high to the ceiling with glorious, grand staircases to match. Membership is not only free but you are more than encouraged to bring your own material. Silence is frowned upon, talking preferred, and even a bit of friendly shouting welcome. Now, as Shakespeare put it, lend me your ears – and your eyes. And as author David Foster Wallace said in Infinite Jest: “I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.’”

Mortlock Chamber, State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia
State Library of South Australia, Adelaide. A bit like what we imagine a tiny portion of the Readers Recommend library looks like. Photograph: State Library of South Australia

So first, we visit the reference section. Your nominations for songs about books may be about the subject in general – about writing a book, about reading or referring to a something in a book in the course of lyrics. The general connection to books can create feelings that may include losing, or indeed finding yourself. “Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self,” said Franz Kafka. Songwriters find joy in books because they help bring out the individual and the creative subconscious. “A book is a dream you hold in your hand,” said Neil Gaiman. “No two persons ever read the same book,” said Edmund Wilson. But having books doesn’t necessarily make you clever, especially if you’re an adult seen on the train reading Harry Potter. Still, JK Rowling put it that: “Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out.”

While songwriters may spend many happy hours in libraries (free heating and shelter after all), or indeed bookshops, how do the books therein influence them? Many songs and books are linked by narrative and many great songs tell a story. So now in the fiction section, what authors have influenced musicians? William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Philip K Dick, Charles Bukowski are figures whose writing and lifestyles have been regularly referenced by songwriters. Among the biggest of all rock star readers is David Bowie, rumoured to have consumed as many as eight books a day, and whose own list of recommended reads, at an exhibition in Ontario, included authors as diverse as Spike Milligan to Colin Wilson, Truman Capote to Martin Amis, and many books about working-class boys made good. His experiments with cutting up sentences in lyrics was particularly influenced by Burroughs.

William Burroughs with an admiring Joe Strummer of the Clash in Burroughs’ New York apartment in 1980. The author has had a huge influence on songwriters.
William Burroughs with an admiring Joe Strummer of the Clash in Burroughs’ New York apartment in 1980. The author has had a huge influence on songwriters. Photograph: Victor Bockris/Corbis

Music is littered with graduates of art school and university heavily using references to authors and their books. But you don’t have to have higher education to be a songwriter, and many include echoes of Dr Seuss, JRR Tolkien, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, JG Ballard, Vladimir Nabokov, Earnest Hemingway, Stephen King, Anaïs Nin, not to mention, of course, Shakespeare and the Bible itself. Novels and plays also influence the narratives of song lyrics. From Oedipus to Faust, Christopher Booker’s 2004 psychology-based study, The Seven Basic Plots, identifies recurring story patterns in literature, ranging from rags to riches, beating the monster, to voyages and quests and various forms of tragedy and comedy. How do these often come in song? Road journeys? Selling soul to devil? Boy meets girl, or accidentally fancies his own mother?

Cool cat … Dr Seuss's 'Cat in the Hat' graffiti on side of a building in the East village section of New York City.
Cool cat … Dr Seuss’s ‘Cat in the Hat’ graffiti on side of a building in the East village section of New York City. The author’s influence pops up in music more times than one can imagine. Photograph: Jonathan Elderfield/Getty Images

Exploring the rest of the RR library, you may also find many a song that refers to other forms of books - children’s, dictionaries, map books, instruction manuals, philosophy and, of course poetry, probably the most closely aligned genre to songwriting itself.

So then, dust of those volumes and name songs that quote or borrow book titles, authors, lines or plots and place them in comments below, or optionally in the Spotify playlist. We welcome also to the chair, and this week’s chief librarian, new guru flatfrog, who undoubtedly has a rich literary treat in store. Your reading deadline for returns is last orders (11pm BST) this coming Monday 22 June for flatfrog’s song/book list published on Thursday 25 June.

To increase the likelihood of your nomination being considered, please:

• Tell us why it’s a worthy contender.
• Quote lyrics if helpful, but for copyright reasons no more than a third of a song’s words.
• Provide a link to the song. We prefer Muzu or YouTube, but Spotify, SoundCloud or Grooveshark are fine.
• Listen to others people’s suggestions and add yours to a collaborative Spotify playlist.
• If you have a good theme for Readers recommend, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist, please email peter.kimpton@theguardian.com
• There’s a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and other strange words used by RR regulars.
• Many RR regulars also congregate at the ‘Spill blog.

Interested in compiling a list of songs from readers’ suggestions? We’re looking for writers for subjects starting from next wek 25 June. Email peter.kimpton@theguardian.com to arrange.


Peter Kimpton

The GuardianTramp

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