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February 8, 2022

Sara Gran's Playlist for Her Novel "The Book of the Most Precious Substance"

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Sara Gran's The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a truly magical and compelling literary thriller.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Gran perfectly captures the eccentric world of antiquarian bookselling while portraying a profound and magical reckoning with loss and the possibility of going on. She has outdone herself."

In her own words, here is Sara Gran's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Book of the Most Precious Substance:

The Book of the Most Precious Substance is about Lily Albrecht, a former writer, now rare book dealer, who’s heart has been broken: her husband, the love of her life, is overcome by a mysterious illness, mute and unreachable, and she’s left alone. The book is devoted to something I haven’t written about much before: desire, especially the desire for sex. Desire is, maybe, best left to the musicians, who express it so much better than us novelists (in their work and, in my experience, in their lives). Words like want and need and love, so often trite on the page, come to life in song.

I Think We’re Alone Now by Tommy James and the Shondells

Within the context of the book, this delightful song has a double meaning: the rosy cloud of love, that makes two alone even in a crowd, and the horror when one person in a family becomes ill, and so many people turn away. You’re alone now, pal.

The Auld Triangle by The Pogues

Is there any more evocative, emotive, singer than Shane McGowan? Is any song a more perfect expression of pure desire—for life, for freedom, for sex? No and no. The lyrics speak of a literal prison, and it might seem a bit exploitive to extrapolate from the specific circumstances of imprisonment to the metaphorical ways in which those us fortunate to be free can feel so far from what we want. But this is what art does—it makes the specific universal, and the universal personal. A hungry feeling/came o’er me stealing (originally written by The Dubliners) is the most perfect evocation of lust I’ve ever come across.

Black Mountain Blues by Bessie Smith

The occult is a major theme in The Book of The Most Precious Substance, and this song is a perfect encapsulation of the strange dark magic that surrounds us. It isn’t specifically about the occult, as so many blues songs are (most famously, maybe, Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Trail), but the song speaks to the world as an unknowable place, where the laws of reality are not so much laws as suggestions, where babies cry for liquor/and all the birds sing bass. It also speaks to the feeling, one I think we all know, of being overcome by our worst selves: I got the devil in my soul/and I’m full of bad booze. Aren’t we all, sometimes? If you’ve never heard it before, I envy you your first listening; it’ll give you a chill.

Gimmie a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer by Bessie Smith

For reasons I find difficult to explain, this song mirrors my feelings about leaving the larger New-York-Simon’s-Random-House-of-Penguins-Publishing-Corporate-Industrial-Complex to start my own small press. The song speaks to a desire to live life honestly, as it is, with the people we find ourselves with, rather than striving for an exalted position that may, rather than bring us more freedom, just confine us more. See also her version of: Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do—I could have easily made this list from Bessie Smith alone, a true American genius who sings with wonderfully complicated depth. If you’re in the car with a bunch of people and don’t know how to keep everyone musically happy, Bessie Smith is the way to go.

Alone Again or by Love

I’d forgotten about this song until, a few years ago, a friend sang it at an impromptu karaoke event at another friend’s house. I had recently lost a few people I was very close to, and I was so haunted by this song I put it on repeat on the long drive home and got utterly lost in a city I’d lived in for nearly ten years. Those losses were the primary inspiration for the book. (NB I did not participate in the karaoke—singing in public is one of very few fears I haven’t been forced to overcome and I’m very happy to stick with it.)

I Will Survive by Cake

Another song I’d known but had forgotten about until it turned up in the best episode of a TV show otherwise best left undiscussed, and it hooked itself inside me. This popped up in the same time period mentioned above—a few years of unrelenting loss and bad news. Those years inspired The Book of The Most Precious Substance and, equally, writing the book inspired me through those dark years. When I had nothing else to cling to, I had, at least, a book to finish. This cover, sung with force and emotion, proves my point that words rendered trite on a page can hit deep in a song. For a few years, this was the best emotion I could muster: not that I would be fine, not that everything would work out for the best, but that I would survive. I did. Of course, the original Donna Summer version is a masterpiece as well.

Darling Nikki by Prince

Prince’s joyful approach to sex is an inspiration for what this strangest of pastimes can be and how we might write about it: not heavy, not dramatic, not guilt-wracked and doubt-torn, but just fun (although heavy, dramatic sex can be good too—no judgements!).

Helter Skelter by the Beatles

When you get to the bottom, you go back to the top of the fucking slide. A good metaphor for writing a book and the up-and-down nature of life as a writer—and a song energetic enough to inspire even on a dreary day.

Sara Gran is the author of Saturns Return to New York, Come Closer, Dope, as well as two previous novels featuring Claire DeWitt. Her work has been published in more than a dozen countries. Born in Brooklyn, Sara lived in New York City until 2004. She now lives in Los Angeles and has a successful career writing for television.

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