I’ve recently been reading some literary criticism – reviews mostly, on blogs and book-related websites – and cramming my TBR list with new titles. It occurred to me that when you become interested in reading a book, you expect the book to deliver a perfect reading experience — else, why bother? You expect to be engaged emotionally (by a gripping story) as well as intellectually (by solid writing and deep thinking), and you expect to read the book in undisturbed comfort. I’ve had plenty of such experiences — one that comes to mind is reading Norman Mailer’s magnificent (and magnificently long) THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG over a period of three days, lying on a couch in the sun with music playing in the room. That was ten years ago. Now I have two young children, three animals, a fulltime job, and a house, and such experiences are becoming increasingly rare, if not altogether extinct. These days, I listen to audiobooks in the car and during runs. I deliberately choose plot-driven novels where I don’t have to pay as much attention to the writing, and I play them at 1.5x or even 2x speed to get through them faster. At home, I’ve been reading the collected letters of John Steinbeck, because they are short enough to consume whenever I have a few minutes. After four months of reading, I’m on page 300, and this feels like a huge accomplishment. What point am I trying to make? One, that I’ve been supplementing my own lack of reading with literary criticism, meaning I’m living vicariously through other people’s reading experiences. And two, that no shortage of time will make me give up buying or wanting books. That expectation of what a book will be like is almost as important as my actual enjoyment of the book once I get around to reading it. There are books I’ve enjoyed having on my shelves – unread – for years, and that I’m planning to read one day, and that in the meantime have filled my head with a thousand possibilities of the worlds they may contain. In my mind, I’ve already read many versions of SOPHIE’S CHOICE or 2666 or STONER. Now all that’s left to do is see if the real books live up to my imagination.
For years, going all the way back to 2003, I’ve kept a journal of the books I read. They have to be books I actually finish, which reduces my overall numbers, but also relieves my guilt over all the books I wasn’t able (or willing) to see through to the end. Looking back now, it seems a Herculean task to have started with one book (Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS) and slowly filled up the pages of my journal.
And I truly mean “slowly.” It turns out that over the last thirteen years I’ve read an average of 35 books a year, or 455 books total. That, to me, is a sobering number for two reasons. One, last I counted, I owned a little over 400 books, many of which I either haven’t read or would like to read again. Based on my annual average, it’ll take me eleven years just to tackle those, provided I don’t buy any more books, which is highly unlikely. Two, the average expected lifespan of a male living in the U.S., according to the National Labor Relations Act poster at my work, is 78. This means I only have about 1,500 books left to read in my life, or enough to revisit my current book collection three to four times. This may suffice for AMERICAN GODS but not for, say, Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN or Jim Harrison’s DALVA.
Still, I dutifully record my reading progress in my journal because not only do I tend to forget the books I’ve read unless I buy them and see them sitting on my shelves, but I also like to leaf through the journal and reflect on my life through the books I was reading at the time. For example, I was in Paris when I read AMERICAN GODS. The weekend I was there, France was struck by a heatwave that left thousands dead throughout the country. It was too hot to sightsee, so I stayed in my hotel. Parisians at the time didn’t believe in AC (maybe they still don’t), so I lay in bed with a wet towel over me — I even opened the bathroom door and let the cold shower run in hopes that some coolness might drift into the bedroom — and devoured Neil Gaiman’s fantastical road trip through an America populated by forgotten gods of the old world.
Similarly, I remember reading John Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN in my sister’s old bedroom at our parents’ house in the days leading up to my move from the Netherlands, where I grew up, to the United States, where I’ve lived ever since. And reading Gregory Maguire’s WICKED over Christmas 2006 and Norman Mailer’s THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG the following Christmas, two occasions I should have spent with my family, but that I chose to spend with books instead. Back in 2003, when I began the journal, I was working on my masters’ thesis on Philip Roth, and the journal shows seven Roth entries in a two-month period. I first discovered Cormac McCarthy, now a favorite, in 2007, and Jim Harrison, another favorite, the year after. Since 2011, I’ve read TRAIN DREAMS by Denis Johnson five times.
2010 was a bad year for me for personal reasons, and the journal ends abruptly in July with Paul Harding’s TINKERS. It picks up again in August 2011 with Susan Hill’s THE MAN IN THE PICTURE, representing the longest reading break of my life — 2 years totaling just 18 books. Something had to be done to make up for lost time. I’m not a fast reader. I like to underline things, re-read passages, etc. Somehow, I had to find more time in the day to read. But then I got married and bought a house and spent more time at Lowe’s than on the sofa reading, and then my wife and I had a baby, and by the end of 2013 I had read just 16 books.
Reading, of course, isn’t a race. But that empty feeling of not getting enough books in my system — like a body not getting enough water, vitamins, or sleep — was very real.
So I started listening to audiobooks on my daily commute to work. The main complaint I’ve heard about audiobooks is that people find it hard to stay focused. The drive to work however I knew well and I was able to get into a zone where I was keenly focused on the book (H. P. Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was my first) while still keeping my attention on the road. This added an hour’s worth of reading time to my day.
Next I began looking for more “cracks” in the day: little openings where I could sneak in a few minutes of reading. Walking the dog (45 minutes). Working out (60 minutes). Even vacuuming, though this required noise-cancelling headphones (20 minutes). All this added a total of seven to ten reading hours to my week. The books I picked were all of that length, so I could get through one per week. I subscribed to Audible, where for a monthly fee you get credits to buy audiobooks. I also learned that the San Francisco Library rents out audiobooks through the Overdrive app and Hoopla, both on the iPhone. I was in audiobook heaven.
What soon became clear was, if you’re going to spend a lot of time listening to someone read, you’d better make sure you like their voice. It’s amazing to me, now that I’ve been listening to audiobooks for two years, what a difference a voice can make — and how some publishers don’t seem to put much thought into who reads their books. Will Patton became an instant favorite of mine. His readings of Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST and Denis Johnson’s JESUS’ SON, TRAIN DREAMS, and TREE OF SMOKE are sublime — his voice being just the right blend of soothing and sinister. Richard Poe too, particularly his readings of BLOOD MERIDIAN, EAST OF EDEN, and Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD. Becket Royce doing Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING is lovely; John Malkovich doing Kurt Vonnegut’s BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is a hoot; and so is Jeremy Irons’ version of LOLITA. Roy Dotrice talent for doing dozens of different voices is the only reason I’ve made it through all five of the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books by George R.R. Martin.
I experimented with listening to books at 1.5 speed and double speed. This worked only for some narrators and only for books I read purely for the story rather than the writing. Others I wanted to savor. But despite my best efforts, by the end of 2014 I had only read (or finished) 27 books.
Last year, I set myself a goal: I was going to make it through 50 books, despite having a family and a fulltime job and writing on a book of my own.
By focusing on shorter works (like Denis Johnson’s THE LAUGHING MONSTERS and Richard Ford’s LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU) and plot-driven works (like John Harwood’s THE SÉANCE) I managed to finish 25 books by the end of May, only five months into the year. I could now tackle some bigger books. The SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books range from 35 to 50 hours each, but I was able to listen to those at double speed, spending 2 to 3 weeks with each volume. Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 are also pretty hefty, but those I listened to at regular speed (3 weeks each), cherishing every minute.
In early December I finished my 50th book, Cixin Liu’s THE DARK FOREST. The breakdown for the year was 38 audiobooks and 12 physical books. Under normal circumstances — reading only physical books — this would’ve been a terrible year. But since I got much of my reading done in the car or working out or walking the dog, I had made a conscious decision to read fewer physical books at home and instead devote that time to my family. I do miss physical books, and every night I squeeze in a few pages before bed, but audiobooks have proven an invaluable asset to my reading life.
Looking back at thirteen years of reading, it’s tempting to try and pick favorites for each year. But time has undoubtedly clouded my opinion. Or perhaps it has done the opposite, clarified it. There are plenty of books I remember enjoying, but whose particulars like plot and characters have not made a lasting impression. For instance, I remember liking Salman Rushdie’s FURY in 2004, but I don’t know why anymore.
The opposite is true as well. DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE, about American paranoia and consumer society, which I first read when I was still living in Amsterdam, made a lot more sense to me when I reread it after having lived in the States for thirteen years. Dean Bakopoulos’ PLEASE DON’T COME BACK FROM THE MOON, about a town where all the fathers mysteriously disappear leaving the sons to fend for their mothers and siblings, didn’t affect me as much in 2006 as when I read it again in 2014, after becoming a father myself.
I’ve toyed with the idea of putting a checkmark in the journal beside the books I liked best each year and tracking how fresh they stay in my mind, but sometimes the process of forgetting sets in so soon, I’m afraid I’d be looking at red marks I made just a few weeks or months ago wondering what they’re doing there. Recently, for instance, I enjoyed Adam Rapp’s KNOW YOUR BEHOLDER, but I can’t for the life of me recall a single scene from the book. This is not the book’s fault, but mine.
Which of the 50 books I read last year will I remember thirteen years from now, and not just how I felt about them? Which will I want to reread?
My criterion for rereading books is layers: a book needs to be able to reveal more than plot to me upon a second or third read. By this standard, Cixin Liu’s THE DARK FOREST (and its predecessor THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM), about the survival of humanity on earth and in space in the next four centuries, is a favorite of the year, but not for life. I think that’s the key to picking favorites.
Out of all the books I read in 2015, there are five that might be favorites for life: THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro, LITTLE SISTER DEATH by William Gay, and the aforementioned WHITE NOISE, LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU, and TREE OF SMOKE. But, of course, only time will tell. So check back with me in 2028.
There is also a reading rule that says: We tend to overrate big books for the sheer effort of having finished them.
I found myself thinking about these two rules as I read the final 200-something pages of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, the fifth book in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series.
George R.R. Martin is not one for instant gratification. I don’t mean the long wait times between his books. What I mean is his plotting.
What actually is the plot of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE? Does anyone, some 5,000 pages into the series, remember? As I recall it, we started out with two main stories: the battle for the Iron Throne and the pending threat of the White Walkers. Both these story lines were succinctly introduced in A GAME OF THRONES, the first of the series. This book remains my favorite, because of its tight focus on the main plot. But starting with book two, the plot spiraled – I won’t say spiraled out of control, because I believe GRRM will eventually tie everything up nicely, or at least to the best of his abilities, but spiraled they have. By the end of A DANCE OF DRAGONS we’re following not just the Starks, the Lannisters, and Daenerys, but at least a dozen less important characters (Stannis, Theon, Euron, Ser Barristan), and at least another dozen characters whose name and significance I have already forgotten (Victarian anyone?).
GRRM’s writing has remained excellent throughout. His sentences may not be memorable, but his characters and world-building are. But after having read 5,000 pages of what promised to be a tight, fast-paced narrative, I have lost almost complete track of the original plot and have no idea what this multitude of characters is working towards anymore. Does Cersei still want the Iron Throne or does she only want her enemies dead and her last remaining child saved? What exactly does Tyrion want from Daenerys, should he ever find her? What does Jon Snow want? He certainly didn’t want to rule the Night’s Watch, nor does he want to sit on the Iron Throne. Who all is fighting over the Iron Throne again? Stannis, yes, but he’s been relegated to the background. What are the Boltons scheming and plotting for? And the Greyjoys? Daenerys was a favorite contender for the Iron Throne in book one, but even she doesn’t seem concerned with actually trying to win the throne.
Characters’ goals and motivations can change of course. This is character growth. But remember how upsetting it was when after nine seasons of THE X-FILES we still didn’t know exactly what had happened to Mulder’s sister or who the Cigarette Man was, two tropes that were introduced all the way back in season one? Writers owe their readers answers, or at least pointers to what those answers might be. Five books into a projected seven-book series, shouldn’t there be an end game in sight? Shouldn’t we know who or what to root for?
What has kept me reading all this time, though, is the fact that GRRM knows how to write a scene. In an interview about a possible spin-off HBO show, GRRM said there are plenty of stories to tell about the world he created. I think as he was writing the books, he got a little too enamored with some of these stories himself. So while most of them are intriguing, fun, and exciting in their own right, they don’t actually move the original plot forward. I would have preferred him to stick to his original plan of writing a trilogy focused on the Iron Throne and the White Walkers. Everything else could have been spin-off novels.
The extraordinary length of these books – or the extraordinary amount of world-building rather than momentum – may be a joy for hardcore fantasy readers, which admittedly I’m not. Whenever the narrative switched to a Greyjoy, or to Arya’s interminable training, or to Brienne’s interminable wanderings in the previous book, I found myself growing impatient for GRRM to just get on with the main story. But whenever we did get to the main story, nothing much happened there either. After Daenerysfinally leaves Meereen, do we really need several more chapters about Ser Barristan seeking revenge on her husband? Yes, this provides texture, but there were moments I felt I was drinking a beer that was all foam and very little liquid.
Which is a long way of saying: I like the different parts of these books – the characters, the dialogue, the world-building – but they add up to something increasingly exhausting. What will the pay-off be, for me as a reader or for the characters? Should I even be rooting for Danaerys to conquer the Iron Throne and for Jon Snow to defeat the White Walkers or have we long moved past this?
And so we wait for THE WINDS OF WINTER and A PROMISE OF SPRING, hoping all the while that GRRM doesn’t add any more books to the series.
I watched Michael Mann’s movie ALI the other night, starring Will Smith. Knowing only the basics about Muhammad Ali, I found the movie strangely disjointed and lifeless. The movie assumes its viewers have a familiarity with Ali, his contemporaries, and the major events of the 1960s that clearly surpasses mine. For instance, I had no idea who the Nation of Islam was, or that Malcolm X was a member until he had a falling out with their leader (I haven’t researched this since then either, so this summary may be wrong, but it’s what I was able to gather from the movie), or that they were the ones who killed him (the reason still isn’t clear to me). Also, the movie only focuses on a short period of Ali’s life, during which his triumphs were either before or behind him (this also isn’t clear), because the only two fights that are shown in the movie aren’t particularly remarkable. I just watched all six ROCKY movies plus CREED, so it may be that Michael Mann doesn’t know how to stage a fight the way the Rocky series does, or maybe Will Smith just isn’t a very good pretend-boxer, but Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston looked clumsy and slow. And without Ali’s legendary boxing prowess on display, he falters as a characters. The movie portrayed him as cocky, stubborn, and enormously unpleasant. Geniuses in Hollywood movies often are, but they’re redeemed by their special abilities, which this movie didn’t show, so there was nothing to redeem Ali. I was left feeling disappointed — at the movie or the boxer I wasn’t sure. You want legends to be people you can look up to, but this Ali (or ALI) I was glad to part with.
Mars, Homer, Shakespeare, Proust, dinosaurs, the Holocaust. How does one make a coherent, even compelling narrative out of these things? Leave it to Dan Simmons, a writer who, if anything, is generous. He produces roughly a book a year and generally they are big and well-researched and contain more plot than you can shake a stick at. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and in truth, Simmons’ interests are so far-ranging that I haven’t read all his books, nor do I plan to. But the ones I’ve read I’ve generally enjoyed, despite some shortcomings that this one, ILIUM, suffers from as well.
Reading Dan Simmons, for me, is like eating comfort food. His writing is solid and he knows how to set a plot in motion. Motion, though, is one of the issues that his books tend to suffer from. They start strong and, like many long books, dawdle in the middle. I’ve been trying to imagine how Simmons came up with the idea for ILIUM. There’s the obvious link between Mt. Olympus from Greek mythology and Olympos Mons on Mars. Then as Simmons was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and started researching and developing the idea of a Trojan War set on Mars, the book bloomed into something involving a little robot and a giant crab meeting some mysterious LGM (Little Green Men), and four rich, entitled, fairly obnoxious men and women meeting an ancient Jewish woman who divulges the lost history of the human race. These added plots are fascinating at first, because of their intriguing ties to the main story line – the Trojan War on Mars – but as they progress they get slower and slower in actually explaining, or even utilizing, those ties. Instead, you’re wading through pages and pages of the robot and the crab having philosophical discussions about Shakespeare and Proust, and more pages about the various ships they travel in and the apparent inconvenience of being a giant crab in space (worse, this crab soon loses his eyes, ears, and legs and becomes a burden to the little robot, as well as to the reader), and even more pages about the entitled rich folk wondering what a Jew even is.
What keeps ILIUM engaging is that main story line, which Simmons gets a lot of mileage out of. The Greek gods are seven, twelve, even twenty feet tall because – duh! – gravity on Mars is lower than on Earth. They ride chariots with holographic horses. They can “freeze” time to adjust the fates of normal human beings. They teleport. They regenerate in giant vats attended by lizard-like creatures. The plot of ILIUM goes something like this. A resurrected twentieth-century scholar, Hockenberry, who is tasked to watch how closely the proceedings on Mars follow Homer’s ILIAD, receives secret orders to kill the goddess Athena. He isn’t up to the task and instead sets of a chain of outlandish events that has him sleeping with Helen – the one the Trojans and the Greeks are fighting over – attempting to kill the goddess Aphrodite, and catalyzing a full-blast rebellion against the gods. Engaging stuff indeed. It’s unfortunate Simmons devotes so much attention – especially in the middle section of the book – to the other story lines, because by the time this rebellion gets underway, you just want the book to end. At least, I did. I actually listened to it on audio and set playback to double speed.
My favorite Simmons novels are HYPERION and DROOD. The latter is particularly long, but somehow I found all the digressions in that book compelling. It could have been the setting (Victorian London and its ghoulish underworld) spoke to me more, or the fact that DROOD had a central mystery awaiting some kind of reveal, whereas ILIUM is more event-driven, and I’ve always been less interested in what-happens-next than in why-does-it-happen.
Final rating for ILIUM: four stars for originality, three for execution.
Most of Christopher Priest’s American readers, I suspect, come to him through the movie version of THE PRESTIGE. The book, however, is different enough to be enjoyed on its own terms. The writing is lovely throughout, and the book is structured like a diary in the way that British novels seem to pull off so well (I’m thinking, for instance, of DRACULA).
What in the movie is presented as a big twist at the end in the book is revealed much earlier, then moved beyond in a truly spectacular way. The ending of the book does what it’s supposed to do: it casts new light on everything that went before, while lifting the whole story to new heights. If THE PRESTIGE were a magic trick, which in a lot of ways it is, I would stand up now and applaud.
Twice a year, in spring and fall, the San Francisco Public Library holds a big book sale with over 250,000 new and used books. Over the years I’ve found some treasures there, including a signed Larry Brown and Jonathan Safran Foer. Usually, I go home with 20-30 books, which is about half of my total reading for the year. For a $1 a book, what’s not to like?
Here’s this year’s haul:
Lots of SF on the right. I’ve been reading SF for years, but still feel that I’m in those early stages of infatuation when there’s so much to discover, so much to love. The writers in the pile on the right I’ve all heard good things about.
On the left, “literary fiction” or whatever you want to call it.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY: I started listening to this on audio during one of my runs and found the opening chapter so beguiling I decided to read the book instead of listen to it.
A NEW LIFE: I love Philip Roth, I love Saul Bellow, I love Joseph Heller, and I love Bernard Malamud’s short stories. Time to try one of his novels.
OLIVER TWIST and DAVID COPPERFIELD: I was anti-Dickens for years after being told by a professor at the University of Amsterdam that one (in this case, me) couldn’t possibly prefer ROBINSON CRUSOE over GREAT EXPECTATIONS because the former was cold and impersonal and the latter was rich and abundant. I’m only now getting over my strong reaction to this one teacher’s insistence on absolutes over personal taste.
A MULTITUDE OF SINS: Ford’s Bascombe books are pure magic. This is a short story collection from 2002.
HENDERSON THE RAIN KING: This was the first or second Bellow I ever read. I didn’t much care for it at the time for reasons I don’t remember, but the book stuck with me all these years. Above the desk where I write I even have the following quote from the book: “We are funny creatures. We don’t see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire.”
MISS LONELYHEARTS: Unfortunately, this turned out to have yellow highlighting inside. Usually I look for this before putting a book in my bag. I’ll be getting rid of this one.
SABBATH’S THEATER: This is my favorite book by my favorite writer, which, I suppose, makes it a strong contender for being my favorite book. Over the years I have owned and lost and gifted many copies of this book, so I couldn’t resist picking up this pristine hardcover.
When you read a good book, its author for a little while becomes your friend. Jim Harrison was my friend since 2007, when I first read RETURNING TO EARTH. He published a book every year, and I read them all. His writing informed my writing, his thinking my thinking. His constant amazement and terror at the natural world resonated with mine, particularly in the novels DALVA, THE ROAD HOME, TRUE NORTH, and RETURNING TO EARTH. He died on Saturday, 78 years old. It’s said he died in his study, laboring over a poem. That’s an ending he would’ve preferred, I think, besides from maybe drifting away under the stars. What do you say when a friend dies? As recently as a few weeks ago I’d dreamed of visiting him at his ranch in Montana, or writing him a letter. Goodbye, Jim Harrison.
THE SPOOKY ART is classic Mailer, meaning, if you take what he says with a grain of salt you’ll have a great time reading this book. He veers from cockiness to humility, from misogyny to pride, regret, bitterness, and nearly incomprehensible mysticism, all the while ragging on journalists, poets, and his fellow writers. He’s also critical of his own work. The prevailing mood, in fact, of this book is regretful: Mailer believes his generation failed to produce a great novel that defined America. There are favorable mentions of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Roth, and Updike (he’s not so sure about Hemingway), but where was that big novel that would be the final say on what it was like to be an American after WW2? It wasn’t HARLOT’S GHOST or ANCIENT EVENINGS, Mailer’s own biggest books, both of which he believes came out at the wrong time and were unjustly overlooked. It wasn’t THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG or ARMIES OF THE NIGHT either, the books that won him two Pulitzers, which were journalistic efforts and, he claims, easier to write than true fiction. He admits he had a hard time finding the story in his novels and wasted too much time on writing journalism instead. He also regrets debasing himself in the media, the lowest form of entertainment. His “wild man” persona, he claims, was only “5 to 10 percent” of him, the rest was work. Still, this persona looms large in the public’s mind.
I enjoyed the first part of this book the best. Mailer writes about the success of his first novel, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and how he struggled with his next two books. The remainder of THE SPOOKY ART consists mostly of old interviews, articles, forewords, reviews, and speeches he’s given, patched together into a disjointed, bewildering, and increasingly bitter narrative. In the penultimate chapter, Mailer briefly discusses a dozen or so writers (including Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Franzen), finding fault with all of them.
Mailer warns that this is not a how-to guide on writing. It certainly isn’t a how-to guide on making friends in the writing business either. But then Mailer was a rabble-rouser, in his writing as much as in the media. Of his last book published during his lifetime, A CASTLE IN THE FOREST, he predicted people would be “livid,” and he was looking forward to the storm it would create.
In THE SPOOKY ART Mailer knows his best work is behind him. He predicts that some day a writer will appear who will be better than everyone who’s gone before him and who will write that elusive Great American Novel. Based on Mailer’s low opinion of other writers in general, he probably believes this person to be himself, reincarnated by way of the Egyptian ritual he describes so vividly in what he considered his magnum opus, ANCIENT EVENINGS.
We didn’t listen to much music at home when I was a kid, so I had to venture out on my own. This was in the pre-internet days — at least, we didn’t have a computer with internet access at home. I did my research at the library, in hopelessly outdated issues of Rolling Stone and a Dutch magazine called OOR.
In town there were three record stores that sold CDs for today’s equivalent of $40. There was no Spotify, no Soundcloud. The only way to hear an album before shelling out $40 was to stand at the counter and listen on a pair of headphones while the store clerks stared at you with either impatience or total boredom.
The library had CDs I copied onto cassettes I bought at the drugstore. They didn’t have much of a selection, though, beyond what was popular in those days: Madonna, George Michael, Paul Young (that all-but-forgotten Michael Keaton lookalike not to be confused with Paul Simon or Neil Young). So one day I rode my bike to the next biggest town and there at the library stumbled upon ChangesOneBowie, an 11-track compilation of David Bowie songs from 1969 to 1976. It didn’t contain the only two Bowie songs I knew at the time — Let’s Dance and Magic Dance from the movie Labyrinth — but it did have Space Oddity, Changes, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and Golden Years.
That album became my constant companion, my north star, my bible. Was it that, as a lonely kid in a small town I was dying to leave, I connected with Bowie’s outsider persona — his Major Tom, his starman waiting in the sky? Was it simply that his music was so heart-piercingly good?
My father didn’t approve of rock music, so I had to listen in my bedroom with the door closed and the volume turned down. Buying rock music was even worse: a crime equivalent to murdering your grandmother. In later years I collected all of Bowie’s work on CD and vinyl, but I never bought ChangesOneBowie. The cassette I lost somewhere along the way. I didn’t need it anymore. I was sold for life.
Trying to explain why you like a certain artist is like trying to explain why you prefer a certain kind of ice cream — it’s a nebulous, magical thing. Let it suffice that Sunday’s news of Bowie having died at the age of 69 was a tremendous shock. Just the Friday before I’d sat spellbound on the floor listening to Blackstar, his new album, letting my one-year-old daughter fend for herself for about 40 minutes.
I’m sad and shocked Bowie’s gone, but I’m also grateful he was here at all: to show a loner kid like me the way.