An Examination of 5 Performance-Enhanced Books


For certain sensibilities, editions that blur disciplines make more sense than one might think. Enthusiasts of the comprehensive cinematic sets released by the Criterion Collection, for instance, have found books beside their DVDs. So, is there a significant divide between the desire to see the director’s cut of a film and the desire to read alternate versions of Carver’s fiction in the Library of America-published Collected Stories?

In recent years, the pros and cons of print and digital editions of books have sparked more than a few debates, with each side boasting its own set of passionate advocates and agitated detractors. What follows will not address that argument. (At least, not directly.) Instead, we’re taking a look at books that are, in some way, enhanced — editions packaged with a complementary object that supplements the words printed between the covers, enhances the author’s themes, or provides a valuable point of reference for the work.

Below a surreal black-and-white illustration of a crowded landscape on the cover of Empty the Sun come two lines. First, A novel by Joseph Mattson. Below that, Music by Six Organs of Admittance. Mattson’s novel begins with its narrator, an alcoholic former guitarist, driving through Los Angeles with a corpse in the trunk of his car, running from (or possibly towards) an apocalyptic vision. The music, composed by Ben Chasny, mirrors the novel’s shifts in tone, from fear and awe of the divine to a desire to savage it.

Empty the Sun is divided into two parts: its first half covers the narrator’s progression towards the Pacific coast, as he flashes back on the circumstances that caused him to to abandon his pursuit of something like a holy state through the making of music. (The loss of a finger to a pair of corrupt cops didn’t help.) As California is left behind for a cross-country trek to Michigan, the novel’s second half shifts into more Gothic territory. The visions and revenants are more domestic in nature, and the same God who initially imparted the narrator with visions of a doomed landscape returns on a smaller scale: a deity that can be brought low, and stung by bullets.

The choice of musical collaborators seems apt. Mattson’s narrator here, much like Six Organs mainstay Ben Chasny, is fond of pursuing transcendence via the acoustic guitar; like the narrator, Chasny blends a knowledge of traditional styles with a furiously modern sensibility, yet also spends time with like-minded musicians working in entirely different styles. The Six Organs… soundtrack here is intimately expansive, mirroring the narrator’s travel through landscapes both physical and spiritual. And this may not be the last way these two elements combine — publisher Barnacle Books lists an audiobook version, juxtaposing Chasny’s music with Super-8 footage, as forthcoming.

Josh Farrar’s Rules to Rock By also features a soundtrack, albeit one sold separately from the book it accompanies. Farrar’s YA novel is the story of Annabelle Cabrera, the 12-year-old daughter of an indie-rock power couple, and her efforts to start a band after relocating to Providence, Rhode Island. It’s a novel that evangelizes avant-pop groups like Deerhoof and Animal Collective to the middle-school set, and includes a scene in which a dinner-table fight is sparked by music-blogger criticism. From a slightly older vantage point, it’s interesting to see certain indie bands and Brooklyn venues translated here into prose — theoretically becoming reference points and signposts to spark a fondness for New York City in a new generation.

The soundtrack includes a dozen songs from The Bungles — in the novel, the band formed by its protagonist, and here a group including members of the high-school-age group Blame the Patient and some older players, including Farrar on guitar. Much like the Bungles of the novel, the group’s repertoire here is a blend of originals and covers, ranging from The Beatles to The Breeders. Rounding out the soundtrack is Deerhoof, keeping up the theme of homage with a cover of LiLiPUT’s “Hitch Hike.”

For James Kaelen’s We’re Getting On, the enhancements to the book being read aren’t easily discernible while actually reading the book, nor are they ones that catch the eye as the book sits on the shelf. Instead, its first edition comes with paper incorporating seeds — meaning that, in theory, one can plant the book after reading it and watch as a spruce grows. (Some surreal blurbs come to mind on hearing this news: “I liked it so much I buried it!” There are also shades of Blake Butler destroying copies of his own Scorch Atlas — the properties of a book ultimately leading to that book’s annihilation.) Publisher Flatmancrooked is calling this the “Zero Emission Book,” and Kaelan will be using a bicycle as his method of book-tour transportation.

Thematically, it’s an interesting choice. We’re Getting On is composed of four shorter stories, at least two of which are linked. All feature characters whose way of life is somehow at odds with expectations, whether punks living in Sacramento or two neighbors haltingly attempting to bond during a blackout (which may itself be a sign of societal collapse). In the longest story, which gives the book its name, a group of five sets out for Battle Mountain, Nevada, hoping to return to a pre-industrial state of being. Dan, the group’s leader and the narrator, has a less laudable motive: “No, we’ve set out to do the opposite, to get to the bottom of this whole human condition. Purchase, garden, hunt, scavenge. That shall be our sequence.”

Assuming the stories are connected, we learn things about Dan in “A Deliberate Life,” the story that opens the book, that mark him as a less-than-ideal group leader. And in the end, “We’re Getting On” seems most reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s studies of idealists and demagogues on quixotic quests into the wilderness. All of which has its own wrenching power, but doesn’t necessarily make these characters a golden endorsement of an environmentally-conscious lifestyle.

A different subset of subculture is discussed in Eric Davidson’s We Never Learn. Davidson is both a musician (in this case, the vocalist for the New Bomb Turks) and a journalist whose resume includes time as an editor for CMJ. Subtitled “The Gunk Punk Undergut 1988-2001,” Davidson’s book is equal parts history and memoir. It’s a fine survey of dozens of underrated bands, but it’s also a pocket history of Davidson’s own experiences and those of his bandmates. It’s also consciously informal. A chapter focusing on the epically irreverent The Dwarves opens with the following lines: “Many have laid claim to the title ‘Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.’ They can all eat shit.”

Besides the previously-mentioned historical and memoir components, Davidson is also making a kind of barstool argument here: that the groups covered — including The Gories, The Oblivions, Rocket From the Crypt, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, and The Mummies — were underappreciated in their day. He has a valid point: none of these bands were easily pigeonholed, and there were no overarching narratives to attract media attention. This book, then, marks Davidson’s attempt to rectify this; besides the brief histories of dozens of bands, it includes recommended singles and albums in abundance. And, tucked in behind the back cover, one will find a card with a download code, not unlike those found in LP sleeves from finer record labels. It’s a wise move: an instant primer on the music covered here and a nice point of reference in order to learn what all the fuss is about.

As formats conflate, descriptions begin to fall short. Is Light on the South Side, released by Chicago’s Numero Group last year, a compilation with a book of photographs attached, or a selection of Michael L. Abramson photographs with musical accompaniment? That same blurring occurs when thumbing through The Art of Touring, a selection of essays, photographs, comics, live footage, and artwork curated by Sara Jaffe (formerly of Erase Eratta) and Mia Clarke (formerly of Electrelane).

But referring to it as a book with a DVD attached doesn’t necessarily do it justice. Do you give more weight to the section that includes a Jem Cohen-directed short film featuring The Ex or the one that features longtime critic Everett True discussing being tear-gassed in Siberia? Each part of The Art of Touring feels essential to the whole and — much like touring itself, which brings together disparate emotional and temporal modes — it’s impossible to think of one without the other.

These five books from presses large and small encompass fiction and nonfiction, coming-of-age narratives and hallucinatory tales of addiction and revenants, personal histories and collections of music and film. The incorporation of elements beyond the text prompts additional questions: Do these items represent an enhancement of or a detraction from the text in question? Are the additional elements essential components of the whole or something akin to the throwaway bonus features available on many a DVD? (The supplemental material appearing at the backs of many Harper Perennial trade paperbacks — recommended reading lists, Q&As with the author, and short works including recipes, playlists, and more — might be the best point of comparison here.)

Looking at these five books, there is not one clear aesthetic objective at work. Taken together, they don’t seem designed to inspire a manifesto or redefine exactly what constitutes a book in this day and age. But the way in which each one pushes slightly at the boundaries of its medium, and the thought that has informed these choices, is encouraging. You could take away the associated music, video, or thematic design elements and the experience of reading each of these books would be much the same. But the subtle accentuations provided here do make for a fuller experience, and it suggests that, for books for which it’s appropriate, the presence of these enhancements might be a welcome one.