Music enthusiasts and book lovers have a lot in common. Both seek out rare finds, are usually off alone absorbing their treasures, and crave a great story. It’s no wonder then that books, and everything related, serve as muses for many songwriters. Classic literature, grammar lessons, and the possibilities found in libraries are put to music ranging from friendly indie-pop, to rap, to heavy metal. Only a small selection of the numerous bookish tracks out there, this 24-song collection is fit for the most ferocious of readers.
Arguably the most well known song that references books, in “Paperback Writer” Lennon and McCartney channel the voice of a struggling author writing to a possible editor. In the song’s opening lyric, the writer asks, “dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?” A question for readers that is rarely responded to with a “no.”
Belle and Sebastian (whose name actually come from a French children’s book) sing about a hopeful couple trying to overcome their shyness in “Wrapped Up In Books.” This endearing pop song is capped off by Stuart Murdoch crooning the lyrical highlight: “our aspirations are wrapped up in books.” For an added bonus, in the music video the band performs the song in a bookstore.
From a song title perspective, “Bookends” is the obvious Simon & Garfunkel song to add to this list but “I Am A Rock” earns its spot thanks to the line, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.” Though Paul Simon writes of someone heartbroken in this classic song, he also describes the perfect way to hibernate in the winter.
Kate Bush writes from the perspective of Emily Brontë’s character Catherine Earnshaw in her unique take on the classic novel Wuthering Heights. An incredibly smart and weird tune (like Bush herself), the poppy chorus doesn’t hide the sadness that fills the literary lyric, “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy. Come home. I’m so cold.”
Experimental band The Books name the three most important activities in any bibliophile’s life in their song “Read, Eat, Sleep.” With a fantastic band name to boot, The Books’ glitchy minimalistic song is great background music to accompany your latest read.
Like The Books, Library Voices have a band name that’s made for this list. One of the many bookish songs from the band, “Reluctant Readers Make Reluctant Lovers” is an incredibly charming pop song that name-drops Yates, Hemingway, Joyce, and Heller. The title alone perfectly captures how unattractive non-readers can be.
Another look at Alt-J’s graphic lyrics and it’s clear that the band is a fan of Where The Wild Things Are. Asking, “do you know where the wild things go?” and ending the song with, “please don’t go, I’ll eat you whole, I love you so” (a slight modification of the book’s original line, “Oh please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!”), Alt-J’s moody experimental-pop hit, is just as unnerving as Maurice Sendak’s classic.
Grammar and book lovers unite with this infectious tune from Vampire Weekend. Packed with clever literary and punctuation quips aimed at a pretentious lover, “Oxford Comma” is indie-pop gold. It also has one of the best opening song lyrics ever: “Who gives a f—k about an Oxford comma?” Despite the hate, the Oxford comma is still a divisive piece of punctuation among literary folks.
Although it was written for Baz Luhrmann’s disappointing The Great Gatsby movie, Jay-Z’s use of Gatsby references in “$100 Bill” is still very impressive. The song is a blend of movie dialogue between Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay-Z philosophizing on today’s consumerism. The comparison between modern life and the 1920s is probably better than the paper on The Great Gatsby you had to write in high school.
Ryan Adams’ tragic yet charming ode to Sylvia Plath appears on his 2001 hit record Gold. In “Sylvia Plath,” Adams sings about love, depression, and Plath’s connection to both while making her a figure of relief with the earnest repetition of, “I wish I had a Sylvia Plath.” Making the song even sadder is the use of simple piano chords and Adams’ vulnerable sounding voice.
Taking their cues from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is almost as psychedelic as the book itself. Rooted by that fantastic bass line and referencing characters like Alice, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Red Queen, and the White Knight, “White Rabbit” is a fantastical trip. Grace Slick’s delivery of the opening line, “one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small” is all you need to be hooked.
Most people have either lied about books they’ve read or been on the receiving end of that lie. Tracyanne Campbell muses on exactly this in Camera Obscura’s “Books Written For Girls.” Campbell tells the story of a guy who “likes to read books written for girls” but “will disappoint you” in the end. Despite Camera Obscura’s quiet folk-pop delivery, the sting of the lyrics cannot be masked.
Originally intended to be the music for a musical based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, David Bowie’s 1974 record Diamond Dogs is occupied with numerous songs inspired by the book. Highlighted by a comically groovy guitar effect, Bowie’s version of “1984” is definitely a whole lot funkier than the novel.
Frontman Tim Baker was inspired to write “Young Glass” after reading J.D. Salinger’s short stories Franny and Zooey. In this energetic, string-filled, rock number, Baker directs his lyrics to young Franny and sympathizes with her disillusionment of the world by telling her that she’s not alone.
Emily Haines’ moody piano-based solo project is a lot different from the music she makes in Metric or as part of the Toronto collective Broken Social Scene. From her 2006 record Knives Don’t Have Your Back, “Reading in Bed” is done in a slow waltz with Haines practically whispering her lyrics. In the first verse, Haines describes the on goings of various people but in the second, questions writing songs about “all of your lives unled, reading in bed.” Haines touches on an important struggle in her melancholic number; why do you need to go out when you can have an adventure without ever leaving your bed?
One of the many J.R.R Tolkien inspired songs from Led Zeppelin, the narrator in “Ramble On” goes on a journey through Middle Earth that’s very different from Bilbo’s or Frodo’s. Straying from Tolkien’s original vision, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s protagonist finds a pretty girl in Mordor only to have Gollum take her away.
Rufus Wainwright puts three of Shakespeare’s Sonnets to music in his 2010 record, which borrows part of its title from Sonnet 43, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. Wainwright successfully pulls off this feat by interpreting Shakespeare’s words in a dramatic, piano-centered, way that heighten the existing emotions.
Roger Waters rewrites Animal Farm for Pink Floyd’s 1977 conceptual album Animals. Drawing on the themes of George Orwell’s novella, Waters passionately critiques the social and political landscape in Britain in the 1970s. Although the whole album is worth any Orwell fan’s time, divided into three different stories, the epic “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” is the most powerful track.
Yes, another Animal Farm song, but if you’re in a pinch, Dead Prez’s “Animal in Man” summarizes the book almost as well as Wikipedia does. “Animal in Man” covers some major plot points and, with Dead Prez rapping, “it’s a very thin line between animal and man,” a major metaphor. Dread Prez also works in the phrase “fraudulent pigs” which makes the song a treat.
Elvis Costello writes his own book on lust and heartbreak in his ‘80s pop hit “Every Day I Write The Book.” Costello’s narrator, “a man with a mission in two or three editions,” outlines romantic failures in the chapters of his book. Between the fat, dated bass line and the background singer, the song is a little cheesy but ends with a brilliantly biting closing line, “I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel.”
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith do well summarizing Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale in their ominous sounding song, “Offred.” Named after the book’s main character, “Offred” captures the desperate mood of the novel thanks to a dense instrumental composition and suitably abstract lyrics. “Offred” hits its stride when Mangan repeats Atwood’s moving words, “they changed my purpose.”
In a traditionally sparse folk style, Bruce Springsteen brings John Steinbeck’s character Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath to ‘90s America. In typical Springsteen fashion, he weaves in narratives of the American people and compares their economic hardships to the Great Depression. A few years later, Rage Against the Machine reinvented “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as an angry rap-rock song for their cover album Renegades. Tom Morello and The Boss later covered it together, which blended their influences for the masses.
Atlanta metal band Mastodon’s album Leviathan is based entirely around Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. The concept album masterfully takes on what’s considered the greatest American novel and follows the white whale, Queequeg, and the power of the sea with a lyrical prowess. In “I Am Ahab,” Mastodon poetically summarize Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge in a chaotic and adrenaline fuelled number.
Los Campesinos! keeps the trend of quirky indie-pop bands writing songs about books going with their upbeat hit “We Are All Accelerated Readers.” Appearing in their 2008 record Hold on Now, Youngster… Los Campesinos! make a case against relationships built on a mutual love of movies, music, or books. In the final moments of the song, the band comes together for a fun chant: “since we became accelerated readers, we never leave the house.” In this case, it’s an unromantic sentiment that unfortunately is not going to save the relationship.