“So you were an English major?” the woman at lunch said, as she confirmed with her order of a second Chardonnay that it was in fact 5:00 o’clock somewhere, even if it was only 11am here. She knudged her friend. “KATIE, she was an English major. And you have a job. Isn’t that something. You know there’s a joke about that right? About how your kind doesn’t get jobs?”
I do know that joke, because I live in the world. As someone who graduated three months before the economy collapsed, it seems awfully dated. Aren’t people supposed to be impressed that anyone without a computer science degree got a job? Come on, give me more credit, Boozy Susie (“Oh she majored in rhyming; KATIE, she majored in rhyming.”)
No matter what people say, or what putdowns they revive four years after graduation, I loved being an English major. Sometimes I miss a month off in the winter and a party every night, but a lot of my college nostalgia is attached to staying up all night scribbling in the margins of a novel as I swilled a 3am cup of coffee. I still read with a highlighter and a pen. I still want to talk about personal agency and postcolonial literature. I still miss fighting about books. Even with a degree and four years spent on other pursuits, I’m still an English major, and I funnelled all my English major super powers into this list of songs about writers and books. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go highlight a book for no reason (There is a long paper about personal agency that will never get written, but for once I’m so prepared for it.)
“Wuthering Heights,” by Kate Bush
Kate Bush explores the emotional journey of Catherine in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Height. The song is sung from her perspective and addressed to her doomed love interest, Heathcliff. I was a bookish kid from the get go, and I remember really liking this song around elementary school, when my dad played it for me during a heavy Brontes period (It ended with a viewing of the very creepy BBC version of “Jane Eyre,” and was revived in college when I wrote a lengthy thesis on “Wide Sargasso Sea.”) It’s an odd song, full of shrill wailing and twinkly Casio keyboard piano riffs, but the video is amazing: Kate Bush does what looks like an SNL impersonation of an interpretive dance in a field. She even “magically” appears at the beginning, folded up in a very high school actor pose, forehead smushed against her tangled arms and legs. It’s dated in a way that’s not even attached to a decade; the song is from 1978, and this might be my age showing, but it seems impossible that this was ever current. But you know who didn’t feel that way? Tupac Shakur, who included it in the soundtrack of his life in high school.
“Bukowski,” by Modest Mouse
Perhaps the most succinct summary of lovable caustic poet, Charles Bukowski: “Yeah I know he’s a pretty good read, but God who’d wanna be such an asshole?”
“Our Love,” by Rhett Miller
Rhett Miller gives a ridiculously catchy history lesson on the love letters of two pairs of doomed, famous lovers: Composer Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck, and Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenka. Kafka’s letters to Milena, who was also a writer and married to famed literary critic (and friend of Kafka) Ernst Pollak, were compiled in the book “Letters to Milena.” It’s an extraordinarily literary love story—one featuring an all-writer love triangle, that was started with a shared writing project (translating Kafka short story “The Stoker”), one that began and took place almost entirely through daily written correspondence. Rhett Miller lays out a few important facts from the story: they only met once in person (“Their rendez vous was singular”), Kafka and Pollak were friends (“Her husband was his friend”), and the affair came to a close when Milena refused to leave her husband (“He was waiting for a love that would never arrive.”)
“Jacob Marley’s Chain,” by Aimee Mann
In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge’s former business partner Jacob Marley is forced to carry a chain in the after life where each link was added due to a bad deed. Aimee Mann is an incredible writer, and her description of the chain is lovely “But it’s not like life is such a veil of tears/ It’s just full of thoughts that act as souvenirs/ For those tiny blunders made in yesteryears/ That comprise Jacob Marley’s chain.” In the song, she not only uses the Dickens reference as a metaphor, but discusses the use in a meta moment towards the end of the song. The song is brief but rich, and sets a melancholy tone that would make Charles Dickens proud.
“Hey Jack Kerouac,” by 10,000 Maniacs
I could listen to Natalie Merchant read a phone book; this video proves it. Something about her funny, sharp diction is unbelievably charming, as is her weird warbly singing voice. She is truly a lost 90s treasure. “Hey Jack Kerouac” is from her days as an 80s treasure, when she sang for the band 10,000 Maniacs. The song is a brief history on the famous beat poet, starting with his New England upbringing (It’s a song about “someone who was not New England,” Merchant asserts at the beginning of the video above), weaving through his time in San Francisco, naming his West Coast Beat compatriots, and ending with his death.
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