When Books and Music Meet: 18 Literary Creations That Rock
Header image by Wonderlane
When we think about books and music, at first impression the only thing they have in common is that they’re forms of art and/or entertainment. But every once in a while, an artist comes along, be it musician or writer, who manages to build a bridge between the two mediums. And when that happens, the results can be pretty awesome. I’ve hunted down 18 of them for you here, be they novels, nonfiction books, albums, or songs – so long as they bring something great to the table.
1. 'Black Mad Wheel' by Josh Malerman
Who better to open with than Josh Malerman? An author renowned for his fantastic debut novel Bird Box, Malerman is also the lead singer for The High Strung. In his sophomore book, Black Mad Wheel, the US military enlists the help of a rock band to investigate a mysterious and potentially dangerous sound coming from the Namib Desert. Max Booth III wrote a review of Black Mad Wheel here, if you’re intrigued.
2. 'Damsel Distressed' by Kelsey Macke
It only makes sense that the authors at the forefront of bridging books and music are often musicians themselves, as is also the case with author Kelsey Macke. Her debut novel, Damsel Distressed, is a YA contemporary about Imogen, a depressed but goodhearted girl fighting for her own fairytale ending. The novel contains a dozen illustrations, each of which has an embedded QR code that takes the reader to a song corresponding with the relevant part of the story. Together, the songs form a soundtrack to the novel: Imogen Unlocked, all written by the author and her husband, Daron Macke, as the band Wedding Day Rain. MTV declared that Macke is “…changing the state of YA books as we know it with her must read novel.”
3. 'Civil War" Audio Novel by Stuart Moore
Civil War is an audio story based on the popular Marvel comic series about Iron Man and Captain America. Targeted at a younger audience, this production has a particularly impressive combination of narration, sound effects, and other production elements, including a full soundscape written to underlay the story. It’s a cool, unconventional take on the audio book.
4. 'Haunted' by Poe
There are lots of books about music and even books written by musicians, but how about a musical album inspired by a book? This is the case with Haunted, the fantastic album by musician Poe, who just so happens to be the sister of House of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski. Fans of HoL can easily pick out specific references to the experimental novel, including a song called “5&½ Minute Hallway.”
5. "1984" by David Bowie
While we’re on the topic of music inspired by books, I’ll mention “1984,” a song by David Bowie based on George Orwell's classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It appeared on the 1974 album Diamond Dogs, which also includes other songs based on the Orwell book.
6. 'Wuthering Heights' by Kate Bush
This is not even a whole album – just a single song – but it’s too damn good to leave out. Inspired by my beloved Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Kate Bush put out a same-titled song in 1978. You guys, it’s just spectacularly melodramatic and weird. The first time I listened to it I had no idea who would want to hear such a thing, but then somehow it became one of my favorite songs. The strange, over-the-top qualities of the song actually perfectly fit the novel, and it includes direct quotes from Cathy, which suits my little literary heart just fine.
7. 'This Song Will Save Your Life' by Leila Sales, read by Rebecca Lowman
To bring things back down to Earth a bit, how about a novel about music? This YA audiobook follows Elise Dembowski, an awkward, outcast teen who eventually finds her niche in a group of band members and DJs, a strong message about how music can bring people together. As a bonus, the book includes a playlist of recommended music.
8. 'The Storm King' by Pete Seeger and Jeff Haynes
Another cool take on the audiobook is The Storm King, which combines stories, narratives, and poems all set to music. Rather than adding music or sound effects to a novel, The Storm King is a series of spoken word performances read by singer Pete Seeger, with the music fully integrated into the listening experience.
9. The Scott Pilgrim graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Another comic series that does cool things with music are the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. Pilgrim plays in a band called Sex Bob-Omb with his friends, and all of the volumes are dotted with cheeky music references and allusions. In Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life there’s even a scene where the band’s playing is accompanied by lyrics and chord progressions, charts for fingerings, and the time signature of the song.
Also worth a mention here is John Darnielle, who has successfully bridged the fields of books and music. As the leader (and often only member) of the indie rock band the Mountain Goats, he’s also published the acclaimed Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester. His first book was a novella, Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, which was part of the 33⅓ series. It broke the nonfiction tradition of the series and instead told a fictional narrative about a young man kept in a psych hospital trying to get back his confiscated tape of the titular album.
11. 'Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll' by Peter Bebergal
I’ve been trying not to fill up this list with nonfiction titles, simply because there are countless books on music, from theory to history, and although they technically fit the bill they’re probably of less interest here. But this one is particularly cool. Bebergal focuses on how supernatural and occult themes and imagery translated into mainstream culture from rock’s popularity in the days of Zeppelin, Bowie, Black Sabbath, etc.
12. 'A Life in Letters' by Wolfgang Mozart, edited by Cliff Eisen, translated by Stewart Spencer
If memoirs are your bag, there is no shortage of them by musicians both famous and obscure (both ghostwritten and authentic). But while memoirs and autobiographies can be enlightening, they are generally written with a careful, editing eye. What makes this collection more intriguing to me is that it’s not a look back; it’s simply the collected letters of Wolfgang Mozart’s life – with notes and commentary to clarify and contextualize.
13. 'This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession' by Daniel J. Levitin
One final nonfiction pick: This Is Your Brain on Music is actually written by a rocker who became a neuroscientist. Levitin explores why the human brain is wired to love music – listening, writing, and performing. He even goes so far as to pose that music is fundamental in the evolution of our species. Cool.
Five More Novels About Music
And last but not least, we have a whole host of literary novels that are about or prominently feature music and/or musicians.There's nothing historical or especially nontraditional about these; they're just well-received novels.
14. Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
15. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
16. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
17. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
18. The Soloist by Mark Salzman
What do you think about books that utilize music, whether as a topic or as a tool? And how about music inspired by books? Has anyone seen any other cool crossovers that I didn’t hit here?
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