When is a music book not about music? It’s a valid question to ask if you stop to consider Nick Hornby’s Songbook, and Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape. Both are ostensibly about music, and the role it plays in our lives. But if you’re serious–in a passionate sort of way, not a pipe-smoking, suede-patch-wearing sort of way–about music, you get on some instinctive level what it means to say that music is the soundtrack of our lives, something that provides not just background noise but also meaning and context. It’s in that context that both of these works fit.
This isn’t either writer’s first go-round with music. Hornby first came to wide attention with High Fidelity, whose protagonist and his friends are a handful of music-addicted arrested development cases, and drew further acclaim with the book About a Boy, over which the ghosts of pop and Kurt Cobain loom large. Sheffield, on the other hand, has contributed some great music writing to the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, turning in his first book with Mix Tape. That both books are about music would seem to be one of the few things they have in common, save for a biting sense of humor.
Look a bit deeper, though, and other similarities become apparent. Not least of these is the fact that both books aren’t altogether about music. Music is the frame, the soundtrack, and in some ways each book’s reason for being, but it’s not quite the whole point. Hornby goes deeper into other subjects, like his son Danny, aging, Englishness, the fickle nature of fame, and how an artist, sooner or later, loses control of his own work as it takes on a life of its own. Sheffield tells us plenty about the music he loves, but the book isn’t a love letter to his favorite bands so much as a rememberance of his wife, Renee. The book’s great achievement isn’t so much the evocation of a certain time and place, a reminder that in the early 1990’s it seemed as though anything was possible (though it’s that, too); it’s moreso that he introduces us to his wife Renee, lets the reader fall in love with her much as he did, and then has us feel what it is to lose the person and to be left with more love, and more memories, than you know what to do with. Both writers realize that there’s more to life than music, but that life would be pretty dull without it; both give us a glimpse into the private places and meanings of songs, letting us know at the same time that music is both the reflector and the director, both illuminating and shaping our lives as we hear them.
This might come across as weighty stuff. It’s not, altogether. But the books have an unexpected emotional heft, the same way a three-minute pop song ends up with more meanings and other freight attached to it than its writers may have originally intended.
Writers–both of music and of books–often confuse “everyman” with “lowest common denominator,” writing something ineffective because they’re trying to be too much to too many people. The songs that make up your personal soundtrack, your own mix tapes, may vary from the authors’, but the feelings that both books manage to evoke (not unlike the songs they’re talking about) are universal because they’re so personal, and so specific.