Books That Sing: On Justin St. Clair’s “Soundtracked Books from the Acoustic Era to the Digital Age”

By Nicholas C. LaudadioNovember 5, 2022

Books That Sing: On Justin St. Clair’s “Soundtracked Books from the Acoustic Era to the Digital Age”

Soundtracked Books from the Acoustic Era to the Digital Age: A Century of “Books That Sing” by Justin St. Clair

AS SOMEONE WHO teaches undergraduate courses that explore the spaces where literature, pop culture, and music overlap, I’m always struggling to find subject matter that connects my students and me with some shared musical experience. Of course, I can (and often do) play them a tune in class to set up a discussion, but some assignments work much better when nearly everyone has at least a lingering acquaintance with the music in question. So, early in the semester, we regularly end up sorting through shared musical references and inevitably finding our way to the music of childhood, including sing-along and read-along media. The idea of a “book with music” is often familiar to them, as is the concept of a text where one turns a page upon being prompted by an audio cue. It gives them a common language in the early days of the course and a set of examples from which we can draw as the term progresses and the interactions between auditory and visual texts grow more complicated.

In Soundtracked Books from the Acoustic Era to the Digital Age: A Century of “Books That Sing, Justin St. Clair explores just such media — works in which visual and aural modes of narrative and musical signification overlap in novel and productive ways — in order to create a “cultural history of an overlooked media form, hiding in plain sight for more than a century.” The result is a well-researched and conversational account of a strikingly obvious, but frustratingly underrepresented, bit of popular-media history that not only “played an underappreciated historical role in the evolution of musical marketing and design” but also came to represent a fascinating limit case in postmodern and experimental narrative.

A professor of English at the University of South Alabama, St. Clair used his first book, Sound and Aural Media in Postmodern Literature: Novel Listening (2013), to begin exploring the rich topic of how music and literature intermingle. In Soundtracked Books, he continues this line of inquiry with sustained attention to postmodernity and its various techniques and protocols, but he brings to bear on these new texts his notion of “schizotemporality” — the idea that “when media engagement is positioned against the tension of competing timelines, reader/listeners often experience a crisis of apprehension,” and that apprehension colors and influences how we read and interpret a textual experience.

Grounded in the disciplines of cultural/literary history and sound studies, St. Clair adopts and updates the idea of a “schizo” audio analysis — 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 field of sound studies need more schizo-jargon? (Answer: No, it most certainly does not).” But with this ironic edge to his own notion of schizotemporality, St. Clair attempts to establish a critical unity to what might otherwise seem an eclectic gathering of texts.

In his telling of the story of singing books, St. Clair adopts a self-proclaimed “vagabond scholarship” that, for the most part, is up to the task of not only analyzing and codifying the cultural and media significance of these texts but also making clear how people actually used them. The project, in St. Clair’s words, “tends to emphasize reception over production” (though there is some attention paid to the site of production here). Ultimately, he argues persuasively that the “asynchronous nature” of singing books “opens a field of play, allowing users to imagine themselves and others, the past and the future, through sensory juxtaposition and recombination.” There is a clearly poststructuralist bent to the work, but it also speaks to our own multimodal present and the complicated interpretive modes necessary to make sense of it all.

As a “vagabond” text that leads the reader on “an idiosyncratic trip through a hundred years of media history,” ranging from early-20th-century children’s records to Kathy Acker multimedia projects, the book’s eclecticism could be dismissed as the result of the author’s personal taste, not to mention his individual library and record collection. Yet St. Clair’s project represents a productive way of studying ephemeral popular texts that lurk on the fringes of cultural consumption — and by doing so, his work moves from surface eclecticism to a perceptive understanding of how texts culled from the odder corners of the Western pop-culture ecosystem can congeal into a useful means of rereading a complex shared media history.

St. Clair’s cultural history begins in 1917 with the patenting of Ralph Mayhew’s Bubble Books series, a joint effort between Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) and Columbia Records to create “books that sing.” To quote the patent filing, a “story or song which is printed and illustrated in the book may be heard at the time the text is read, and while the book is open at the cut illustrating the story or song.” The resulting series, which focused mostly on a fairy tale and folk tradition, became a phenomenon, running for decades and serving as precursor to the famous Disney Read-Along books that would dominate children’s media in the decades to come. Beyond tracing these obvious influences, the chapter hinges on St. Clair’s observation that “the anthropological impulse that characterized the Bubble Book series (i.e., the collection and representation of traditional folk songs) is yet another element that recurs throughout the history” of singing books. “Anthropological” in this sense indicates the quasi-scientific impulse found in midcentury recordings that aimed to recreate a “transporting” and “exotic” media experience of the sort found on countless mood records of the era.

The second chapter, “Sounds Exotic: The Columbia Legacy Collection and Our Midcentury Imagination,” drives this “anthropological impulse” home in its primary analysis of the Columbia Legacy Collection, a largely forgotten “fourteen-volume book-and-record series” whose use of novel audiovisual juxtapositions sought to muster a sense of historical adventure in the midcentury living room. Beginning in the 1960 with The American Revolution and running until 1972, the series included entries on the American Civil War and the Russian Revolution, as well as unusual entries such as The Bullfight (1967), featuring a “complete aural experience through music, the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca […] and Norman Mailer reading from his ‘Footnote to Death in the Afternoon.’” St. Clair’s focus on this volume early in the chapter (based on a chance encounter with the recording at a thrift store) serves as a strong foundation for the argument that these odd ephemeral artifacts provide us a “window into America’s midcentury imagination and the peculiar kind of time travel that soundtracked books of a certain vintage dependably provide.”

St. Clair frames his discussion of the Columbia series with a discussion of the brief popularity of exotica — artists such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter, whose instrumental “tropical” tunes were geared to transport a postwar American generation through the power of music and spoken word. St. Clair also posits that the work of Moses Asch and Harry Smith can be a way to understand these types of multimodal texts, especially their Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), with its Whitmanian desire to “sing” the American experience at 78 rpm.

In the third chapter, “Otherworldly Sounds: Alternative Spiritualities and the Soundtracked Novel,” St. Clair becomes a spelunker into the farther-flung sections of used record bins, with the long-overdue discussion of Mike Nesmith’s obscure 1974 solo recording The Prison: A Book with a Soundtrack. An original member of the “Prefab Four” (a.k.a. the Monkees), Nesmith — “Nez” to his fans — always projected a quiet, contemplative-artist vibe, which was reflected in his mostly alt-country post-Monkees solo work. The Prison was a bold change in his output, originally released as a 48-page oversized book with a seven-song LP that relayed a kind of fairy tale about spiritual awakenings and childlike wonder. Despite Nesmith’s best intentions, the resulting work was a critical and commercial failure — music critic Robert Christgau found the “boxed audio-allegory-with-book” to be “ghastly,” and Nesmith himself noted that the project was “a good idea, but in practice it was not widely accessible.”

This chapter also considers Ursula K. Le Guin’s postmodern offering Always Coming Home (1985) — released with a cassette of 10 original works by composer Todd Barton — as well as L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth (1982), released with an original album called Space Jazz featuring Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. The odd but clearly productive intersection of these texts gives the chapter a fresh perspective on the cultural oddities of the period. Le Guin’s novel has always been something of a historical footnote to those who study her work or multimedia releases of the era, but St. Clair places Always Coming Home in a continuum with the Bubble Books and the Columbia series, suggesting that, “however sophisticated a work of postmodern fiction it may be,” it remains associated with children’s media.

The book’s final full chapter, “Digital Readers: Paratextual Music and Interpretive Communities,” begins with an unusual but compelling analysis of Pussy, King of the Pirates, consummate postmodern author Kathy Acker’s ambitious 1996 project that included a collaboration with British art-punk band/collective the Mekons. Acker claimed to “see it as a singing book” and worked with that original vision to render a new, hypertextual version of her work as a CD-ROM or even an online MUD community. As such, her work represents an extension of the soundtracked book canon into the digital ecosystem, and it is illustrative of ways that a multimodal project such as St. Clair’s allows for intersections with “digital interpretive communities” that engage with these texts in new, interactive ways.

This idea of an interpretive community is very well captured by the chapter’s other focal point, Mark Z. Danielewski’s magisterial cult horror novel House of Leaves (2000), a work that clearly represents for St. Clair the peak of the soundtracked novel form. He notes that “[i]n many respects, House of Leaves represents the apogee of high-postmodern soundtracked fiction,” referencing the fact that the much-lauded novel was released with a somewhat less acknowledged soundtrack by Danielewski’s sister, the pop singer Poe, and that certain codes in the book point outward to the recorded music.

The chapter ends with discussion of “crossover artists” who write “soundtracked memoirs” and novels — people like Joe Pernice and John Wesley Harding — although St. Clair saves most of his attention for Willy Vlautin, once member of alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, who went on to write the novels Northline (2008) and Don’t Skip Out on Me (2018), which both came complete with musical companion texts. St. Clair’s argument is that the temporal disjunction between the auditory and visual registers in the act of consuming the text makes possible another signifying dimension in which these hybrid texts make sense of themselves.

Ending his final chapter’s discussion of works with an “eclectic, polyphonic approach to multimodal storytelling,” St. Clair offers a brief but evocative discussion of novels and memoirs that were released with an accompanying playlist, such as Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009) and Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003). St. Clair’s afterword extends this discussion of fiction’s new digital appurtenances by confronting the failed “Booktrack” business model in the early 21st century. Using an algorithm that gauged reading time and then offered up music deemed emotionally and chronologically suitable, the project resulted in a “jarring” reading experience, thus providing a good final example of St. Clair’s schizotemporality, the disjunction that results from the juxtaposition of two modes of media signification.

Sounding a lot like early hypertext theorists, St. Clair is optimistic about what the history of the soundtracked book represents, suggesting that the “overarching trajectory of the soundtracked book is characterized by a marked increase in democratic engagement, a shift from traditional, centralized modes of textual authority to more contemporary, distributed systems of participatory interpretation.” To a very real extent, this optimism — whether or not a reader fully agrees with it — is key to what makes this book successful as a history of audio culture. The suggestion here is not necessarily that this apparent smattering of last century’s ephemera amounts to too much more than that — they remain ephemeral texts to a real extent. Rather, this persistent attempt on the part of “hybrid” artists to put new media forms in tension with preexisting ones as a means to expand the readerly experience has long been a nonephemeral technique in rethinking what fiction and music are capable of, both on a commercial as well as artistic level, and St. Clair’s book makes that point 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.

LARB Contributor

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.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!