Bibliophilia: Book Soundtracks & Subversive Lists

Reading Peter Pan on Booktrack
Reading Peter Pan on Booktrack

A good book by itself is a completely immersive experience but that hasn’t stopped publishers, authors, and just about everyone else from tying to make the reading experience more immersive. One of the latest attempts at this is Booktrack, an e-reading app that adds music, sound effects, and ambient noise to classic stories. The app itself, as well as the first few pages of offered titles, is free so I tried it out and immersed myself deeper than I ever could have imagined into the dark and diseased world of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I should clarify though that by “immersed myself deeper than I ever could have imagined” I mean that I read the story on my iPhone while listening to a soundtrack mainly comprised of  spooky choral singing and cough noises.

To say that I think Booktrack is silly would be redundant. Instead I’ll say that Booktrack is something that I’m sure more than a few early adopters will get into but not something that will revolutionize the way we read. The main reason I don’t see Booktrack sticking around any longer than fifteen minutes is that it is just a fresh coat of paint on something that never took off to begin with, book soundtracks. Book soundtracks themselves are relatively new (relative to the history of books) and although they haven’t become wildly successful, when done properly can add another level of depth or entertainment to the text it was created for.

One of the best examples of music added to a book in order to establish a more profound experience comes from John Hodgman’s 2005 The Areas of My Expertise. John Hodgman’s work can best be described as made up information that sounds true but isn’t.  In fact John Hodgman’s entire public persona, from playing PC in Apple’s famous Mac and PC commercials, a smarmy literary critic on Bored to Death, and pretending to be a judge on the internet, is predicated on the joke that he looks and sounds like a genius but isn’t (but is).

Anyways, in The Areas of My Expertise John Hodgman attempts to show how much he knows about hobos by listing seven hundred hobo names. In the book it’s impressive to see all of the names taking up a good hunk of pages, but when Hodgman reads each name aloud on the audio book it becomes somehow even more impressive than before. Reading the entire list of names takes roughly an hour and as John Hodgman reads the list his friend Jonathan Coulton plays a meandering instrumental version of Big Rock Candy Mountain.  John Hodgman reading the entire list of hobo names runs on David Letterman’s principle that something done long enough will become unfunny, then funny again, then unfunny again, and then hilarious. The same goes for the song as it wavers in and out of consciousness. Side by side the song and the list of names carry on like an absurdist version of chicken daring the listener to cave-in and switch it off.

But Jonathan Coulton’s instrumental version of Big Rock Candy Mountain adds an even deeper layer beyond similar aesthetic. For those unfamiliar with the song, it tells the story of a hobo who lures young men into the hobo life style with promises of cigarette trees and hens that lay soft-boiled eggs. Yet after they leave their homes to follow the hobo not only do they never reach the foretold paradise but are also “buggered sore like a hobo’s whore.” It’s essentially the story of the Pied Piper; just with hobos instead of rat catchers.  With his books John Hodgman is essentially playing his own version of his the luring hobo. His books promise complete world knowledge but when you open them you just find the ramblings of a mad man.

What do you think? Have you ever used an app or found another way to make reading more immersive? Have you ever listened to a book soundtrack? Should I have included something about L. Ron Hubbard, father of the book soundtrack, and his first book soundtrack Space Jazz? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on immersive reading experiences, subversive lists of hobo names, and cigarette trees.

– Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

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