On Justin St. Clair’s “Soundtracked Books from the Acoustic Period to the Digital Age”

AS SOMEONE WHO teaches undergraduate programs that discover the areas the place literature, popular culture, and music overlap, I’m all the time struggling to seek out material that connects my college students and me with some shared musical expertise. In fact, I can (and infrequently do) play them a tune in school to arrange a dialogue, however some assignments work significantly better when almost everybody has no less than a lingering acquaintance with the music in query. So, early within the semester, we recurrently find yourself sorting by means of shared musical references and inevitably discovering our option to the music of childhood, together with sing-along and read-along media. The concept of a “e-book with music” is usually acquainted to them, as is the idea of a textual content the place one turns a web page upon being prompted by an audio cue. It provides them a standard language within the early days of the course and a set of examples from which we are able to draw because the time period progresses and the interactions between auditory and visible texts develop extra sophisticated.

In Soundtracked Books from the Acoustic Period to the Digital Age: A Century of “Books That Sing, Justin St. Clair explores simply such media — works during which visible and aural modes of narrative and musical signification overlap in novel and productive methods — in an effort to create a “cultural historical past of an ignored media type, hiding in plain sight for greater than a century.” The result’s a well-researched and conversational account of a strikingly apparent, however frustratingly underrepresented, little bit of popular-media historical past that not solely “performed an underappreciated historic position within the evolution of musical advertising and design” but in addition got here to characterize a captivating restrict case in postmodern and experimental narrative.

A professor of English on the College of South Alabama, St. Clair used his first e-book, Sound and Aural Media in Postmodern Literature: Novel Listening (2013), to start exploring the wealthy matter of how music and literature intermingle. In Soundtracked Books, he continues this line of inquiry with sustained consideration to postmodernity and its numerous methods and protocols, however he brings to bear on these new texts his notion of “schizotemporality” — the concept “when media engagement is positioned in opposition to the strain of competing timelines, reader/listeners usually expertise a disaster of apprehension,” and that apprehension colours and influences how we learn and interpret a textual expertise.

Grounded within the disciplines of cultural/literary historical past and sound research, St. Clair adopts and updates the thought of a “schizo” audio evaluation — drawing upon R. Murray Schafer’s contested notion of “schizophonia” — as a mode of understanding how these texts work. Early in Soundtracked Books, he asks: “Does the sector of sound research want extra schizo-jargon? (Reply: No, it most actually doesn’t).” However with this ironic edge to his personal notion of schizotemporality, St. Clair makes an attempt to determine a important unity to what would possibly in any other case appear an eclectic gathering of texts.

In his telling of the story of singing books, St. Clair adopts a self-proclaimed “vagabond scholarship” that, for essentially the most half, is as much as the duty of not solely analyzing and codifying the cultural and media significance of those texts but in addition making clear how individuals really used them. The venture, in St. Clair’s phrases, “tends to emphasise reception over manufacturing” (although there may be some consideration paid to the positioning of manufacturing right here). Finally, he argues persuasively that the “asynchronous nature” of singing books “opens a area of play, permitting customers to think about themselves and others, the previous and the longer term, by means of sensory juxtaposition and recombination.” There’s a clearly poststructuralist bent to the work, but it surely additionally speaks to our personal multimodal current and the sophisticated interpretive modes essential to make sense of all of it.

As a “vagabond” textual content that leads the reader on “an idiosyncratic journey by means of 100 years of media historical past,” starting from early-Twentieth-century kids’s information to Kathy Acker multimedia tasks, the e-book’s eclecticism may very well be dismissed as the results of the writer’s private style, to not point out his particular person library and report assortment. But St. Clair’s venture represents a productive approach of finding out ephemeral in style texts that lurk on the fringes of cultural consumption — and by doing so, his work strikes from floor eclecticism to a perceptive understanding of how texts culled from the odder corners of the Western pop-culture ecosystem can congeal right into a helpful technique of rereading a fancy shared media historical past.

St. Clair’s cultural historical past begins in 1917 with the patenting of Ralph Mayhew’s Bubble Books sequence, a joint effort between Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) and Columbia Data to create “books that sing.” To cite the patent submitting, a “story or music which is printed and illustrated within the e-book could also be heard on the time the textual content is learn, and whereas the e-book is open on the reduce illustrating the story or music.” The ensuing sequence, which targeted totally on a fairy story and people custom, turned a phenomenon, operating for many years and serving as precursor to the well-known Disney Learn-Alongside books that will dominate kids’s media within the a long time to come back. Past tracing these apparent influences, the chapter hinges on St. Clair’s commentary that “the anthropological impulse that characterised the Bubble E book sequence (i.e., the gathering and illustration of conventional people songs) is one more ingredient that recurs all through the historical past” of singing books. “Anthropological” on this sense signifies the quasi-scientific impulse present in midcentury recordings that aimed to recreate a “transporting” and “unique” media expertise of the kind discovered on numerous temper information of the period.

The second chapter, “Sounds Unique: The Columbia Legacy Assortment and Our Midcentury Creativeness,” drives this “anthropological impulse” residence in its major evaluation of the Columbia Legacy Assortment, a largely forgotten “fourteen-volume book-and-record sequence” whose use of novel audiovisual juxtapositions sought to muster a way of historic journey within the midcentury front room. Starting within the 1960 with The American Revolution and operating till 1972, the sequence included entries on the American Civil Conflict and the Russian Revolution, in addition to uncommon entries equivalent to The Bullfight (1967), that includes a “full aural expertise by means of music, the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca […] and Norman Mailer studying from his ‘Footnote to Loss of life within the Afternoon.’” St. Clair’s give attention to this quantity early within the chapter (primarily based on an opportunity encounter with the recording at a thrift retailer) serves as a robust basis for the argument that these odd ephemeral artifacts present us a “window into America’s midcentury creativeness and the peculiar form of time journey that soundtracked books of a sure classic dependably present.”

St. Clair frames his dialogue of the Columbia sequence with a dialogue of the transient reputation of exotica — artists equivalent to Martin Denny and Les Baxter, whose instrumental “tropical” tunes had been geared to move a postwar American era by means of the facility of music and spoken phrase. St. Clair additionally posits that the work of Moses Asch and Harry Smith could be a option to perceive a majority of these multimodal texts, particularly their Anthology of American People Music (1952), with its Whitmanian need to “sing” the American expertise at 78 rpm.

Within the third chapter, “Otherworldly Sounds: Different Spiritualities and the Soundtracked Novel,” St. Clair turns into a spelunker into the farther-flung sections of used report bins, with the long-overdue dialogue of Mike Nesmith’s obscure 1974 solo recording The Jail: A E book with a Soundtrack. An authentic member of the “Prefab 4” (a.okay.a. the Monkees), Nesmith — “Nez” to his followers — all the time projected a quiet, contemplative-artist vibe, which was mirrored in his largely alt-country post-Monkees solo work. The Jail was a daring change in his output, initially launched as a 48-page outsized e-book with a seven-song LP that relayed a form of fairy story about religious awakenings and childlike surprise. Regardless of Nesmith’s greatest intentions, the ensuing work was a important and business failure — music critic Robert Christgau discovered the “boxed audio-allegory-with-book” to be “ghastly,” and Nesmith himself famous that the venture was “a good suggestion, however in apply it was not extensively accessible.”

This chapter additionally considers Ursula Ok. Le Guin’s postmodern providing At all times Coming Dwelling (1985) — launched with a cassette of 10 authentic works by composer Todd Barton — in addition to L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth (1982), launched with an authentic album known as Area Jazz that includes Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. The odd however clearly productive intersection of those texts provides the chapter a contemporary perspective on the cultural oddities of the interval. Le Guin’s novel has all the time been one thing of a historic footnote to those that examine her work or multimedia releases of the period, however St. Clair locations At all times Coming Dwelling in a continuum with the Bubble Books and the Columbia sequence, suggesting that, “nonetheless refined a piece of postmodern fiction it could be,” it stays related to kids’s media.

The e-book’s last full chapter, “Digital Readers: Paratextual Music and Interpretive Communities,” begins with an uncommon however compelling evaluation of Pussy, King of the Pirates, consummate postmodern writer Kathy Acker’s bold 1996 venture that included a collaboration with British art-punk band/collective the Mekons. Acker claimed to “see it as a singing e-book” and labored with that authentic imaginative and prescient to render a brand new, hypertextual model of her work as a CD-ROM and even a web based MUD group. As such, her work represents an extension of the soundtracked e-book canon into the digital ecosystem, and it’s illustrative of ways in which a multimodal venture equivalent to St. Clair’s permits for intersections with “digital interpretive communities” that have interaction with these texts in new, interactive methods.

This concept of an interpretive group may be very nicely captured by the chapter’s different point of interest, Mark Z. Danielewski’s magisterial cult horror novel Home of Leaves (2000), a piece that clearly represents for St. Clair the height of the soundtracked novel type. He notes that “[i]n many respects, Home of Leaves represents the apogee of high-postmodern soundtracked fiction,” referencing the truth that the much-lauded novel was launched with a considerably much less acknowledged soundtrack by Danielewski’s sister, the pop singer Poe, and that sure codes within the e-book level outward to the recorded music.

The chapter ends with dialogue of “crossover artists” who write “soundtracked memoirs” and novels — individuals like Joe Pernice and John Wesley Harding — though St. Clair saves most of his consideration for Willy Vlautin, as soon as member of alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, who went on to write down the novels Northline (2008) and Don’t Skip Out on Me (2018), which each got here full with musical companion texts. St. Clair’s argument is that the temporal disjunction between the auditory and visible registers within the act of consuming the textual content makes potential one other signifying dimension during which these hybrid texts make sense of themselves.

Ending his last chapter’s dialogue of works with an “eclectic, polyphonic strategy to multimodal storytelling,” St. Clair gives a short however evocative dialogue of novels and memoirs that had been launched with an accompanying playlist, equivalent to Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009) and Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003). St. Clair’s afterword extends this dialogue of fiction’s new digital appurtenances by confronting the failed “Booktrack” enterprise mannequin within the early twenty first century. Utilizing an algorithm that gauged studying time after which provided up music deemed emotionally and chronologically appropriate, the venture resulted in a “jarring” studying expertise, thus offering a great last instance of St. Clair’s schizotemporality, the disjunction that outcomes from the juxtaposition of two modes of media signification.

Sounding lots like early hypertext theorists, St. Clair is optimistic about what the historical past of the soundtracked e-book represents, suggesting that the “overarching trajectory of the soundtracked e-book is characterised by a marked enhance in democratic engagement, a shift from conventional, centralized modes of textual authority to extra up to date, distributed programs of participatory interpretation.” To a really actual extent, this optimism — whether or not or not a reader absolutely agrees with it — is essential to what makes this e-book profitable as a historical past of audio tradition. The suggestion right here isn’t essentially that this obvious smattering of final century’s ephemera quantities to an excessive amount of greater than that — they continue to be ephemeral texts to an actual extent. Quite, this persistent try on the a part of “hybrid” artists to place new media types in stress with preexisting ones as a method to increase the readerly expertise has lengthy been a nonephemeral approach in rethinking what fiction and music are able to, each on a business in addition to creative stage, and St. Clair’s e-book makes that time most clearly.


Nicholas C. Laudadio is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he teaches courses in pop culture and pop-music studies as well as critical and cultural theory. He co-edited Disaster Pedagogy for Higher Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022) and is currently working on a history of electronic music and science fiction.

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