Reality Listening: The Books

I’ve yet to listen to The Way Out, the new album from The Books, but their 2002 debut, Thought for Food, of which I am a huge fan, has been in heavy rotation on my morning runs. (I have their two other full-lengths, but have yet to find reason or time to listen to them over their first album.) Thought for Food is a wonderful collection of songs emblematic of the type of art that David Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto) suggests our culture should place a greater amount of focus on.

The Books are perhaps best known for incorporating vocal samples into their otherwise acoustic folk songs. These samples are gathered from, among other places, “thrift stores, movies, vinyls, and [their] own personal family archives.” These samples are very effective at creating exciting, unique and soul-stirring music. Nowhere is this effect more evident, to my ears, than in their song “All Our Base Are Belong To Them,” which has the great line(s), delivered from a sample, “How do you do? Welcome to the human race. You’re a mess.” There is also a sample featuring a group of adults learning that a friend (or family member) is going to be having a baby. The laughter that follows the announcement conveys more genuine joy (for this audio sample could well be from a “personal family archive”) than any cathartic pop/rock bridge could provide.

Here are some quotes from Reality Hunger related to collage:

315. While we try to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they’re actually chaotic and opaque. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances. There’s no internal spectator of a Cartesian theater in our heads to applaud the march of consciousness across its stage.

341. You don’t make art; you find it.

349. The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement (albeit one that, due to its variegated source material, can’t be edited into the smooth, traditional whole that a work of complete fiction could be). The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument.

And here also are some quotes from his chapter titled “hip hop,” which strangely apply also to the two white nerds (Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong) who make up The Books:

259. Genius borrows nobly.

260. Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

261. Art is theft.

264. Sampling, the technique of taking a section of existing, recorded sound and placing it within an “original” composition, is a new way of doing something that’s been done for a long time: creating with found objects. The rotation gets thick. The constraints get thin. The mix breaks free of the old associations. New contexts form from old. The script gets flipped.

280. Language is a city, to the building of which every human being has brought a stone, yet each of us is no more credited with the grand result than the acaleph which adds a cell to the coral reef that is the basis of the continent.

I mostly agree with Shields’ points here. I think there’s great value in approaching literature and music in the way that Maggie Nelson and The Books, respectively, do. Life today, to a large extent, can’t be properly represented (artistically) in linear blocks of text, for example. There are breaks, diversions, distractions. Consciousness is not linear, though our art, which often tries to comment on the human experience, of which consciousness is an integral element, would suggest otherwise.

One key difference between my best friend and I is that I highly value (practical, quotidian) linearity. If I arrange to see a movie at 7:15, I’ll do everything in my power to assure that I’m in my seat before the Coming Attractions start to roll. But my friend is more open (and more prone) to breaks, hiccups. He might mention to someone that we’re seeing a movie at 7:15, and ask them to join, and they might express interest in coming along, but only if we go later, because, say, they’re busy at 7:15. Or he’ll blatantly suggest seeing a later time instead, out of convenience, not necessity. This frustrates me, but doesn’t phase my friend. Which, I think, speaks either to my peevishness or to our culture’s growing acceptance that linearity is tough to achieve in anything these days. It’s hard for me to imagine anything, except maybe writing or reading, that I do single-mindedly, or in a straight chronological or psychological line. Our art, Shields posits, should reflect this shift in daily life, this shift in reality.

In the June 2010 Believer, Shields writes:

And central to this, for me, is not being able to tell exactly what we’re reading or seeing or listening to, not being able to locate its genre. I think of the books and films and performances that helped me forge my aesthetic twenty years ago, and pretty much without exception they’re works whose valence is beautifully encrypted.

I can’t think of a genre to place The Books in. Perhaps “collage music.” But that’s not any genre that I’ve ever heard of. (“Folktronica”? Please.)

I question whether Shields believes the type of art he advocates for in Reality Hunger should gain widespread appreciation. (Or is he merely suggesting that his manifesto be a guide for serious-minded non-commercial artists?) He certainly speaks of his favorite books as though they deserve a larger audience. I could see Maggie Nelson winning a Pulitzer or an NBA (she was recently granted a Guggenheim Fellowship), but I can’t ever imagine The Books getting much attention on the radio. They are simply too strange, their sound too splintered. People don’t want to hear their consciousness represented on the radio, in fact, I think they want a break from it. On this point, Shields and I might disagree, as I believe commercial music’s main purpose, as far as I can discern, is to entertain. I imagine Shields would denounce this claim, as he speaks of books’ (the artifacts, not the group) foremost purpose as to provide insight to the human experience, not to amuse. I think his credo would apply, also, to the music medium.

To this, I would maybe quote (knowing Shields’ fervor for appropriation) a rather poignant line from OutKast’s chart-topping “Hey Ya.”

“Y’all don’t wanna hear me, You just wanna dance.”

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2 Responses to Reality Listening: The Books

  1. Kurt says:

    Thanks for the post – nice to see your consideration of David Shields’ work and looking for ways you experience it. I’m checking out The Book now – I am tracing down lots of references made by Shields and by others (like you) – I think he’s saying something important about how our world, our culture is operating, how our brains are adapting to the wired world. All the best –

  2. John Francisconi says:

    Thanks for the comment, Kurt. The Books are quite talented. Well worth checking out. I also have a series on here focusing on books that Shields has referenced (, which you may be interested in checking out.

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