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The Songs of Books

This entry is part 12 of 25 in the series The Mythology of the Modern World

It is Mythology Day once again, and today’s comes from… [checks notes] um… hm. Super Battle Droid.

Look, I’m not going to ask for a clarification. He (or she) might have a blaster. My skin is soft and remarkably unblasterproof.

Anyhow, SBD’s question is simple. Well, actually, it’s somewhat convoluted:

What really happens to the myriad graduate and undergraduate thesis papers after they disappear into the archives of their respective universities, never to be read, cited, peer reviewed, or heard from again?

That’s a good question, and worthy of examination. For reasons I hope will become clear, we will explore it in a myth we call:

The Songs of Books

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Books sing, when you aren’t looking. This is well known, and explains why librarians are so dedicated to keeping you quiet. They spend a lot of time around books, you see, so they can almost make out the songs the books are singing, and when you’re whispering to the girl you’re trying to impress for the nineteenth time just when the librarian could almost make the lyrics out again? Well, it’s safe to say you’re lucky they don’t flay you alive.

But the songs of books are seductive and cheerful alike. When you order books from far away, they sing their songs with cheer and joy, knowing they’re winging their way to you. When you reread a book again and again, the book’s song grows happier, more content every time you return. And when you least expect it, your very favorite books will sing to you so often that you’ll catch yourself humming or whistling a tune you’ve never consciously heard before. And all you know is it makes you happy inside, at least as long as you remember it.

Different books, different manuscripts have different songs, of course. Adventure novels sing triumphals and power ballads — your blood pumps faster, your adrenalin flows as you read them, breathless without quite knowing why. Romance novels sing torch songs and jazz — sometimes the bland pop of modern jazz, sometimes the smoke filled jazz of an earlier era, but there is always that odd, almost unconscious sense of naughtiness as you read. Jazz’s power is that hint of the forbidden, even when it’s completely allowed, and that passes through to the furtive reader of the bodice ripper or the Laurel K. Hamilton vampire hunter having sex book.

Oh please. Of course it’s a romance novel.

Detective and mystery novels are cool school jazz — somewhere between the adventure and the romance, they evoke style and allure. Even the most prosaic of police procedurals has a quiet bass line, the book whispering its song to you in a way that draws you in and creeps you out.

Horror novels sing industrial, mostly. Though there’s a few who sound uncannily like Tom Waits or Nick Cave. Stephen King’s novels often sound like Nick Cave. But mostly, it’s industrial. Or the occasional Trance piece. Or Post-Punk. Look, this isn’t an exact science. Let’s just go with industrial for the nonce, all right?

Popular fiction is just that — pop music. Standards if you’re lucky. Classic rock, maybe. Sometimes some alternative. If you’re not lucky, it’s easy listening or overproduced boy band crap. But hey, it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Literary fiction, all too often, is trying too damn hard to sound like John Cage or Philip Glass or the Mothers of Invention. You get Laurie Anderson if you’re lucky. All too often, you’re not.

Most books of poetry sing Gilbert and Sullivan — or at least, very similar operetta sounds. Great poetry reaches for true Opera — arias of poignancy and majesty. Most poetry is glad to make it to the light operetta. “Clever,” the reader thinks, unconsciously hearing the patter.

The self help section sings show tunes, mostly. Some Broadway, some off-Broadway. Everything from South Pacific up through Les Miserables with a side diversion into the whole Andrew Lloyd Webber thing. Also, way too many self help books sing selections from the Fantastiks or A Chorus Line to be entirely comfortable.

Reference books tend towards classical music. Not the grand opera of the great poets, mind. There’s a lot of hummed Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major in the reference section. Really, a lot of reference books sing songs influenced and laden by the Baroque period. Foreign language dictionaries seem especially influenced by Henry Purcell, books of quotations by Vivaldi, and a frightening number of ‘learn how to write’ handbooks sing bad knockoffs of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Biographies sing “It’s A Small World After All,” over and over again. Some librarians who work extensively in the biography section of their libraries go completely insane within ten years, without ever quite knowing why.

Autobiographies prefer “Zip-a-dee-do-dah,” it is worth noting.

But the question is about the thesis. The paper, the book, the work of analysis that puts forth a statement, defends that statement, and then wraps it up in summation. What of this, people ask. Because people are like that.

Well, that’s simple. Argumentative essays of any stripe, academic or popular, published or submitted, graded, peer reviewed, journaled, argued and defended before committees or published in the mass market making the case that all Liberals are Godless Traitors who deserve castration, are singing whatever song they think will get them laid. Theses sing to attract a mate. Whether a soul mate or a quick fuck in the back seat of a DeSoto depends on the thesis, of course.

But it is true. Even as the writer of an argumentative essay must research and devote himself to the subject he is analyzing, so the work he composes is itself devoted to reaching out, to embracing that subject. Especially when the thesis is analyzing another book. Then, the thesis knows true longing. True desire. When you wrote that essay deconstructing The Tempest as a statement on the oppression of minorities with Caliban the clear hero of the piece, Prospero standing as the face of White Power who invokes authority he doesn’t truly have which leads ultimately to his losing control of the storm, and Miranda as the bridge between cultures who rejects Caliban’s embrace (and through it, the unification with and uplifting of), then your essay, fully cited and bibliographied, printed out and bound if appropriate is desperate for that Penguin Classics copy of The Tempest you were using as your primary source. Its song is passionate and heady, running through anything that it thinks The Tempest will like. Country, power ballads, Barry White, Hip Hop, “Love Me Tender” — anything.

The tragedy is, the primary book generally doesn’t give the essay the time of day. Honestly, it’s above such trailer trash — and all those theses want the same thing any how. No thank you. Harold Bloom’s insane ramblings have already broken The Tempest’s heart enough, thank you very much.

And so it goes. You have all of these works, these theses, these essays, pouring themselves into song to attract the notice of their subjects, who themselves almost never give them the time of day. They start full of swagger — the cock of the walk, the coolest in town, Mister Man. But they never get far. Their songs grow desperate. They grow lean and hungry.

But then, if they are lucky… a new voice enters the room. Someone reads the essay. Someone agrees or disagrees with it. That someone writes their own essay. An essay that cites the first one, or (better even) directly engages it. An argument. A debate. A discourse.

And suddenly, the first thesis has someone to sing with. Someone who might represent the opposite opinion, as devoted to the thesis as the thesis was to the original work, the new essay’s song of hunger and longing and seduction meant for the thesis alone. Or perhaps it’s a mere citation. A flirtation. A one night stand. Either way, the thesis will take it. He will join his voice to this new essay’s voice, and they will sing out together in passion and pleasure. And if it’s done right, more will come along. New voices, trying to interpose themselves. New theses. A full on discourse. A rough and tumble debate. Books and journals singing their hearts out in a chorus of passion and hedonistic joy.

Those are the lucky ones. Sure, the thesis who set it all off might still yearn for the original book. He might still think she’ll come around, and they can go off together, fictional work and the definitive analysis of it. But it almost never happens, and he contents himself with the sheer sensation of critical debate. And in time, he might even forget the original work, letting his interpretation become central to the debate. And while in an intellectual sense, that leads to the essay becoming essentially meaningless, from the point of view of the essay, it’s as good as he’s getting, so what the Hell?

To be honest, though, that’s rare. For most theses, they have their moment in the sun. Their moment to strut and pose and sing their hearts out in a mating display that ranges from elegant and seductive to downright trashy.

And then they are thanked, and the librarians and the archivists pick up the copies, and move them into the back rooms. They catalogue them. They label them. They shelve them.

And they forget them.

For a while, the theses sing their mating song all the louder, hoping that sheer volume will attract some attention — get some of that debate action going. And once or twice it even works. The essay is pulled out and cited, and there’s a hook up or two. Sure, it might not be very good, and it might feel cheap, but at least they’re feeling something, right?

But the others slowly grow quieter. They feel a sense of despair for a while. A depression that settles over them. They realize that the original work will never know their name. They realize that no one else is going to debate them. They realize this is it. This is what they can expect. Their voices grow quieter, becoming a whisper, and finally grow silent.

You are sitting there, thinking this is the end. And it’s depressing. But you’re wrong. This is only the beginning. Because there is a song for rejection, for depression. A song learned at the crossroads, as the dream dies and life goes on. A foundational song. The song that draws in the listener, even if they don’t engage with the original essay or the material. A song that fills the air with a bass beat, some drum and a guitar.

The forgotten theses sing the blues.

And this is the real deal. The full on, hardcore blues. The cathartic blues that pulls in the listener, tugs at him, and exhilarates them all at the same time. The theses sing alone or in concert, playing at backup then taking center stage. Even if no one ever reads their words again, you can almost hear the blues as they pour from the back stacks and the shelves and the filing cabinets. Chicago blues. The blues of the bayou. Southern Soul. Texas Rock Blues. You name it, it can be found.

And the blues filters to the front of the library. Its echoes can be heard, and they influence the beat and the pulse of the books on the shelves. Sometimes, a novel even hears a potent blues piece, sung to the raw by a thesis that she had originally disdained when he was singing his mating song to her.

“Who is that,” she says, in between stanzas of her own song. “I would totally do that guy.”

Too late, babe. He wouldn’t take you now. He’s too cool for you now.

And that just makes him feel worse.

And that just makes the song better.

That’s the blues for you.

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