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September 13, 2012

Book Notes - Tim Kreider "We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons"

We Learn Nothing

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tim Kreider's essay collection We Learn Nothingis satirical, funny, and irreverent regardless of topic. Kreider's skill at exploring personal, political, and/or cultural subjects in prose is as impressive as his estimable cartoons, which are scattered throughout the book.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Kreider locates the right simile and the pith of situations as he carefully catalogues humanity’s inventive and manifold ways of failing."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Tim Kreider's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection, We Learn Nothing:

The true, secret soundtrack to this book—that is, the music I listened to while writing it—would not evoke the experience of reading it for you, and besides would be far and away the geekiest, least cool playlist ever posted on Largehearted Boy. I've never had a lot of interest in popular music and don't really know much about it; my first musical love was film scores, which led me to my adult tastes in Romantic and avant-garde composers. But I'll listen to anything friends recommend or send me, and I've often fallen passionately in love with a song for a few weeks, listening to it over and over, wanting to hear nothing else, until it stops giving me shivers. These are some of the songs I had crushes on while I was working on this book, or that seem to me to have the same feel as the essays in it—mordant, melancholy and yearning.

"This is What I Do," by Rhett Miller

A few years ago my friend Kevin, who'd just spent a month in the hospital after a heart attack, gave it to me straight: "You gotta stop being heartbroken all the time; I gotta stop being a big fat slob who almost dies." –"The Creature Walks Among Us"

It was the friend I call "Kevin" who recommended this song to me, for reasons that were unflatteringly obvious. It's the anthem of a man who's finally accepted that his disastrous love life is not happenstance or bad luck, a series of regrettable missteps and false starts on the path to something better and more lasting—no, this endless flailing from one doomed affair to another is, in fact, exactly what he wants. I can't help but admire its author's defiant embrace of his own incorrigible fuckuppery: This Is What I Do.

"Robbin' Banks" by Michael Hurly and the Unholy Modal Rounders

Of course [drinking] was fun. If it weren't so much fun it wouldn't be such a widespread and terrible problem. – "You Can't Stay Here"

I fondly associate this song with that long, summery phase of my life that was mostly devoted to indolence and drink. I still tense up whenever I see the police because for the first ten or twenty years of my adulthood I was almost always doing at least one illegal thing, and I have to remind myself that I'm now, sad to say, a mostly law-abiding citizen. How I loved being illegal. However, I deny having ever stolen a chicken in any form.

"Touch the Puppet Head" by They Might Be Giants

"My role is… to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come out and play." -"The Busy Trap"

Included here as accompaniment to my essay "The Busy Trap," which is likely to be included in the paperback edition of this book. I always figured putting your hand inside the puppet head was T.M.B.G.'s metaphor for assuming whatever hateful fake persona society demands of you: "Memo to myself: do the dumb stuff I gotta do. Touch the puppet head." Like most of the songs on this playlist, this one is anthemic, an irresponsible manifesto, not unlike my essay. There may be no more purely joyful words in the English language than I'll see you after school.

"Happy Phantom," by Tori Amos

Right now I'm neither in love nor heartbroken. I almost hesitate to say this; it still fells provisional, like remission. - "The Creature Walks Among Us."

After writing those words I had a very strange week in the spring in New York City when I felt exactly as if I were in love, but couldn't quite think with whom. I'd always suspected that love was its own free-floating entity that attached itself to its objects somewhat arbitrarily, but this was the first time it had appeared completely untethered. The feeling was somehow associated with this song in my head, but it wasn't about the song. Sometimes I had to shut my eyes tight, I felt so ecstatic, overflowing with happiness. It was like a haunting, or a visitation. It followed me around for a week or two, and then it was gone.

"O soave fanciulla" from La Bohéme, by Puccini (sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni)

Maybe one reason artists are so susceptible to love affairs is that being in love is one of the only times when life is anything like art—when we actually feel the way torch songs and arias sound, the way Gene Kelly looks singing in the rain. - "The Creature Walks Among Us"

There are so many songs in this playlist related to my essay on love affairs and heartbreak not because it's any more important than the other essays in the book but simply because there are so many songs about love. My friend Jesse once compiled a list of ratios of Over- and Underrepresented Human Experience in Pop Sings. The most overrepresented on the musical side was "unambivalent, heartfelt, unselfconscious, univocal feelings of love toward a romantic partner." The experience most underrepresented in pop music was "having to pee."

This is why I usually listen to classical, not popular music; every love song ever written sounds tinny and juvenile by comparison to O soave fanciulla. This is what it sounds like to fall in love. Like that old music critic Nietzsche wrote: "In the end we love our desire, not what is desired."

"Land of Hope and Dreams," by Bruce Springsteen

This nation was founded by wackos who were driven out of their homelands over their subversive politics and lunatic religions, and a nation of wackos we remain." - "When They're Not Assholes"

I feel like we ought to have a referendum to choose a new national anthem every few decades, as historical context demands. It obviously should've been "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" during the Depression & World War II; in the modern era, clearly, it should be something by Bruce Springsteen, most likely "Born to Run," but I myself would vote for "Land of Hope and Dreams." Although I cite the political philosopher Charles Daniels' manifesto "In America" in my essay on the Tea Party/culture war, this is my favorite patriotic song. I like its vision of America as the land of losers, whores and gamblers, lost souls, broken-hearted, thieves and "fools. You don't hear much about any of these people in election-year speeches.

"Life is Sweet/Afterlife" by Maria McKee

Maria McKee is best known for her tenure in a band called Lone Justice, but I first heard her years after that, when she was solo performer. Seeing her perform live is hair-raisingly intimate; it feels like spying on someone who's singing to herself. This song speaks to me of the same unsentimental, bittersweet sense of this life that I try to convey in my writing. Recently I was standing in front of a mountain lake in northern Idaho next to a friend's mother who's suffering from Alzheimer's. She knows I look familiar, but she doesn't remember where she knows me from, or that I stayed at her house in Pennsylvania many times, or that she just asked me these questions ten minutes ago. She took a photograph of the sun setting over the mountains, the sky a dusty orange and purple, and then she turned to me and said: "Life is good."

"Ooh La La," The Faces

My friends in south Baltimore used to play this song at their semiweekly hootenanny in the back room of Cox's Pub. It always choked me up and made me glad to be alive, and it seems a fitting accompaniment a book called We Learn Nothing. It's not necessarily true that we learn nothing, but it does seem like the few things we do finally learn we learn exactly too late to benefit from them. And it seems we—I, at least--have to learn them over and over again.

"The Road/Finale" from Fahrenheit 451, by Bernard Herrmann

Seeing my own goofball expressions transposed into beauty in her face was like seeing those filigreed blue shadows fall over Saturn's lambent clouds. […] Touching that piece of lunar basalt brought back from a quarter-million miles away was not stranger or more marvelous to me than the touch of my sister's finger. - "Sister World"

This is the one piece of music on this playlist that I actually listened to regularly while writing. Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 is not a great adaptation of Bradbury's novel, but it may have the most beautiful ending of any film I've ever seen. It was shot in a real snowfall, which turns out to be instantly distinguishable from the Hollywood soap-flake version. Its vision of people wandering in a forest, each having become a book unto him- or herself, reciting Austen or Dickens or Ecclesiastes under their breaths, gentle fugitives and illicit keepers of the faith in a vicious, illiterate world, will break any book-lover's heart. Bernard Herrmann's scoring for the scene is one of the loveliest pieces I've heard by him, chill and delicate and beautiful as a snowfall. And I'll just mention here that it times out nicely with the last paragraph of "Sister World," the penultimate essay in my book, which is one of my favorite pieces of prose I've written.

"Jump," by Van Halen

We each have a handful of those moments, the ones we take out only rarely to treasure like jewels, when we looked up from our lives and realized: "I'm happy." The last time this happened to me I was driving on Maryland's unsublime Route 40, looking at a peeling Burger King billboard while Van Halen played on the radio. - "Averted Vision"

I actually considered including a disclaimer in my book stating that the author neither weeps nor listens to Van Halen with the frequency the book might seem to imply. I was a little disconcerted to notice not one but two references to Van Halen in these essays, and believe me there could have been more. (I listened to the Best of… CD on the way to and from the hospital every day when my mother was sick--a period covered in my essay "An Insult to the Brain"--despite the inexcusable omission of "Hot for Teacher.") Van Halen was popular when I was in high school, and I'm afraid we all end up afflicted with a Pavlovian affection for the music of our youth whether it reflects our own taste or not. In other words, I don't particularly like Van Halen; I just love them.

To this day I have no idea what this song is about. Is it the "standing with my back against the record machine" or "the wrecking machine"? Is it a song about dancing or suicide? I've no idea and am not particularly interested in finding out. Perhaps Mr. Van Halen, like all great artists, intended to leave the meaning ambiguous, trusting his audience to draw their own conclusions.

Tim Kreider and We Learn Nothing links:

the author's website

Publishers Weekly review
Read React Review review
There From Here review
Willamette Week review

The Comic Journal interview with the author
Huffington Post essays by the author
Kirkus Reviews interview with the author
New York Times Opinionator essays by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists