I’ve been asked a lot lately (by myself) which I would pick in one of those contrived life or death situations upon which all of life’s trivial decisions seem to hang: which would you pick, music or books? As a man who frequently thumps his fat hands repeatedly against a keyboard to make words, it might be assumed that my default answer is ‘BOOKS MOTHERFUCKER.’ But just before the hypothetical gun-wielding master of reality can place the barrel against music’s head and pull the trigger, I suddenly imagine life without Pink Floyd. And that throws the whole issue wide open.
Music has the uncanny ability to penetrate life at every level. There’s the obvious one, like the CDs you buy, the downloads you steal, the X Factor singles you fumble desperately with the remote to avoid. Even for the quarter hour or so a day you’re not plugged into your iPod/iPhone/iLung those birds be chirping, those radios be playing, those feet be tapping. Even the click-click of a car’s indicator soon turns itself into a beat (don’t tell Rihanna or she’ll ruin that too).
Perhaps most poignantly, music ties itself to our memories in a way that books don’t. Everyone remembers the first record/tape/CD they went out and bought (mine was The Smurfs Go Pop. Don’t judge). Do you remember the first book you ever read? Chances are it was a right-wing didactic doctrine insistent upon the assertion that cows go moo. Maybe there’s a reason we’ve forgotten.
Remember what you were listening to around the time you got your first job? I had finally properly discovered The Beatles, and spent my 2-hour journey into and across Basingstoke rinsing everything from Rubber Soul to Let It Be. When my bus started passing roads called ‘Lennon Way’ and ‘McCartney Walk’ I feared for my sanity. Remember what you were listening to around the time you had your first serious crush? Blackfield had just released its second album. With the right earphone broken, I trudged home through Winchester in the rain after delivering a homemade Valentine’s card that would go unanswered. What song do you associate with that girl who you never quite managed to win over? ‘The World is Yours’ by Caravan.
(Listening to Caravan might be why I never managed to win her over).
Now, tell me what book you were reading during these rites of passage. It’s a little more difficult, isn’t it?
Reading a good book tends to be a more insular experience. While music blares away as a background to housework or masturbation, reading demands your attention. You settle down in a quiet moment and lose yourself to it. You snatch a chapter on a bus journey to distract you from the smell of the other passengers. Those moments remain self-contained. I read The Magus on a 9-hour Megabus journey from Leeds to Southampton. I read The Shining in year seven literacy class just to spite my teacher who didn’t believe I could. I read endless Peanuts comic strip collections at my Grandma’s house because the unusual bedroom made me too scared to sleep. From these memories I can piece together by association what was happening in my life, but the books in no way come to personify it. The experiences become fond memories in themselves.
This is where some kind of conclusive point should arrive. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen, as when I set out to write this the whole music vs. books conjecture was merely intended as a framing device for my more wayward personal memories. I’m sure there are countless people out there ready to disprove my theory with a shout of ‘Whenever I reread American Psycho I remember my days as a marauding axe murderer!’ Luckily those people will never see this blog and are hopefully in jail.
A conclusion... well, in line with social convention, let’s just say that if someone ever holds a gun to my face and screams ‘MUSIC OR BOOKS!’ I’ll lower my head further into my book to avoid the weirdo, and won’t hear the snap of the trigger through the Iron Maiden blasting in my ears.