|Jane Goodall hosts your "Reading Life". Do share your views.|
‘For the way I thought prose should move, I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing.’ This is Clive James speaking – speaking on the page, that is, in an essay from Cultural Amnesia about the great jazz singer and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. I’m not sure why Clive James has become one of my favorite writers, but perhaps it has something to do with the music in him.
Sometimes I pick up a book and put it straight down again because the writing seems to me to be tone deaf. There’s no sense of pitch or cadence, no feel for the rhythm and sound of words. Everyone who’s taken a writing course will have been told about how important it is to get the right ‘voice,’ and readers will often take to a book because it ‘sings’ to them in a particular way – even if their reception of this is fairly unconscious. Yet how often do we turn to music to tune ourselves in to this subtle aspect of the writer’s art?
Since this page is about readers, I’m very interested to know about how reading and music may work together for you. Thinking about this prompted me to get in touch with my friend Marie and put the question to her. Marie is someone I always encounter in two places: at concerts, and at reading/writing groups. Her grandmother taught her to play the piano at the age of five, and by that time Marie was also a compulsive reader. She loved nursery rhymes, which she learned by heart, and soon the fascination with how words sounded and phrases sang led her to read poetry. Judith Wright and John Shaw Neilson are two of her favourite poets.
‘Do you listen to music while you are reading?’ I asked. Marie gave a cautious response. A great book and a great musical work demand full attention, she said. ‘It does a disservice to the musical work not to listen with one’s whole being.’
‘To listen with one’s whole being’ – now there’s a phrase with a ring about it. Sometimes a really good reading experience is like that, isn’t it?
One of the reasons I want to focus on reading in the Universal Heart Book Club is that I believe it is a skill and an art, like good listening. It’s about allowing yourself to be called out, heart and soul, but when you are ‘out there’, you are following the art of the writing with a finely tempered instinct for its shapes and resonances. Although sometimes, too, you are just enjoying the dramatic power of damn fine tune. For example, Marie loves Bette Midler singing ‘The Rose’. I have been inspired by great songs sometimes when I am working on a story. Jeff Buckley sings the hauntingly mysterious "Corpus Christi Carol" with a concentration that seems to deepen the imagination as you listen.
Now here’s a challenge for you, our readers: what is your favourite piece of music? And can you think of a piece of writing – a book, a poem, an article - that lives up to it? Even more particularly, when or how is your reading life enhanced by music (and what music is that)? We are keen to hear from you! Use the comments box immediately below. Easy to use via "Anonymous" if you don't have a Google account. And you can enter your name in the text box. Don't hold back.