A Book about Music: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2021

July 10, 2021 | Wendy B.

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As someone* once said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. 

It's awkward, isn't it? When someone's writing about music, they're usually really writing about something adjacent to music. They're writing about the lives of musicians, or the brains of people listening to music, or music's historical or social context or its impact. Music hits us someplace nonverbal; that's why we have it instead of more books.

Not that this stops people from trying. Below, we have novels, memoirs, interviews, scientific analyses and histories about music, musicians and the brains of music listeners. 

And anyway, why shouldn't people dance about architecture? 

*It was most likely comedian Martin Mull, who — fun fact — went on to play private detective Gene Parmesan in the TV series Arrested Development.


Staff Recommendations

Girl in a band

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Gordon wrote this autobiography after her husband and fellow band member Thurston Moore left her for a much younger woman.

Like many musicians, she went to art school, tried a year in the film production program at York University, and then fled to New York. Here things came together and she became a founding member of Sonic Youth.

The book is more than a vehicle to shore up her waning self esteem. Through her candor, she writes herself and her life back together.

Other categories this would work for:

  • A book about fame
  • A book about growing older
  • A debut book

— Linda, Librarian


Anthem Limelight Driven

Anthem: Rush in the '70s by Martin Popoff

Limelight: Rush in the '80s by Martin Popoff

Driven: Rush in the '90s and "In the End" by Martin Popoff

Each book is fine as a standalone, allowing the reader a deep dive into a specific decade of the band, but I recommend all of them, and indeed anything written by Canadian music journalist Popoff. Rush is an icon of progressive rock music, who formed right here in Toronto in the late 60's. All three members are extremely talented, and drummer Neil Peart, who passed away in 2020, is considered to be one of the most influential musicians ever.

Other categories:

  • A book about fame
  • A book with a one-word title

— Sephora, Senior Department Head


Just Kids

1. Just Kids by Patti Smith

The way I live and think about life would not be the same without Just Kids, and I think many readers have had a similar, transformative experience with this book. Patti is a brilliant musician and artist and thinker, but she is a transcendent writer. The memoir won the National Book Award, and has been flying off shelves since its original publication in 2010. Intimate, generous, and immediate, recommended if you are a lover of life, music, art, New York City, punk, poetry, beauty, revolution, love, and stories of enduring friendship.

Other categories this book could work for: 

  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet
  • A book about growing older


Joy of Playing

2. The Joy of Playing, the Joy of Thinking: Conversations on Art and Performance by Catherine Temerson with Charles Rosen (translated by Catherine Zerner)

Concert pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen is interviewed by his friend Catherine Temerson on the pleasure of practicing, playing, and performing music, on art, theatre, history, science, modernism and aesthetics. "'Music is a way of instructing the soul, making it more sensitive,' [Rosen] says, 'but it is useful only insofar as it is pleasurable. This pleasure is manifest to anyone who experiences music as an inexorable need of body and mind.'"

Other categories:

  • A book by two or more people
  • A book that made you feel comforted or hopeful


Absolutely on music

3. Absolutely On Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami with Seiji Ozawa (translated by Jay Rubin)

Haruki Murakami has a deep love and appreciation for music. Here, the prize-winning, internationally best-selling Japanese author interviews his long-time friend, legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa on their shared interest. Transcribed over a period of two years, this book documents their intimate and insightful conversations on art and the creation of it. It is a pleasure and privilege to sit in on this exchange between two true masters.

Other categories:

  • A book by two or more people
  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet

— Andrea, Librarian


Little devil in America

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib

Truthfully, while I enjoy music as much as the next person, I'm not so invested that I would read books about it. However, I am a fan of Hanif, and after reading his previous essay collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us and poetry collection The Crown Ain't Worth Much, I will happily read anything he writes. Abdurraqib is no doubt a talented writer, and he brings a unique and insightful analysis to the performances of Black musicians ranging from Josephine Baker to Beyonce. The subtitle Notes in Praise of Black Performance is especially apt, as Abdurraqib acutely contrasts Black performers with the "double-consciousness" and "performance" the average Black person does on a day-to-day basis.

Other categories:

  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet
  • A book about someone who is living your dream (not my dream, but maybe someone else's?)
  • A book published this year

— Aminata, Senior Library Assistant



Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics 

This was one of my favourite reading experiences of last year. It is pure joy on the page and in the ears! Dolly is such an incredibly talented songwriter and wonderful person. Learning the inspirations and stories behind her music and philanthropy only made me love her more. I'd highly recommend, if you can, checking out both the print/ebook and audio versions as they work together to tell the whole sparkly story.

Other categories:

  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet
  • A book that made you feel comforted or hopeful
  • A book about fame

— Jennifer, Librarian


Beethoven's hair

Beethoven's Hair by Martin Russell

I really enjoyed this book. It's a kind of biography of Beethoven but with a slight addition of modern history attached. [Note: Beethoven's Hair is available as an adult book, a middle-grade adaptation, an always-available eAudiobook, and a digital video!]

Other categories:

  • A book that is narrative nonfiction
  • A book about STEM

— Isaac, Librarian

Every note played

1. Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

A once accomplished concert pianist, Richard now has ALS, and as someone who has had acquaintances with ALS it was eye-opening to find out the process of the disease in this novel. Richard loses his career in music and endures ALS with the help of his ex-wife.

Other categories:

  • A book about love


Death at la fenice

2. Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon (first book in the Comissario Guido Brunetti series)

A world renowned opera conductor dies in the his dressing room in the midst of his break.

Who did it?

The show went on, though, with a replacement conductor.

Learn about the opera world, explore Venice, and try to figure out along with Detective Guido Brunetti what/who caused the death of the famous conductor.

Other categories:

  • A debut book
  • A book that is the first in a series

— Despina, Branch Head

Magic strings of frankie presto

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom.

Frankie Presto is born with a gift of music bestowed on him. As he goes through life, he influences many real-life artists such as Carole King, Elvis and Wynton Marsalis. Even though this is purely fiction, it's really cool to see how rock music develops through Frankie's life.

Other category:

  • A book about fame.

— Debra, Librarian


Change is gonna come

A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America by Craig Werner

This is one of my favourite non-fiction books of all time. Werner writes with great enthusiasm and knowledge about Black music: how its "impulses" can be felt/heard in every form of American popular music; its social/historical context; and its place in social movements. When I was a bookseller, this was my go-to-title when local musicians came in looking for something great to read.

Other categories:

  • (possibly) A book about your heritage or culture
  • A book about someone(s) you'd like to meet

— Kimberly, Librarian


This is your Brain on music

1. This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin

The author was a musician and music producer who became a neuroscientist at McGill University. I read this book years ago but I think it holds up as a classic on how our brains process and interpret music and why some music can have such a powerful emotional impact.

Other categories:

  • A book about STEM



2. Instrumental by James Rhodes

Rhodes is a British pianist who was sexually abused as a child. Music helped him survive the pain and trauma of that experience. Each section begins with a description of a piece of music so compelling I immediately went to the Naxos Music Library and listened while I read. A harrowing story about the healing power of music.

Other categories:

  • A book with a one-word title
  • A book that is narrative nonfiction

— Carolyn, Senior Collections Specialist


Great composers

The Great Composers: An Illustrated Guide to the Lives, Key Works and Influences of Over 100 Renowned Composers by Wendy Thompson

This is a great introductory reference for the uninitiated, amateur fan of western classical music. Don't expect any comprehensive, in-depth stuff here. Spans across ancient Greek and Medieval all the way to Serialism and Minimalism (20th century). As you can tell from the title, the focus is on creators, but there are fun explanations of historical context, instruments used, etc.

Other categories:

  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet (possibly)

— Cameron, Digital Design Technician



The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

I'm listening to the audiobook of this right now. It is the story of the friendship between two brown musicians, Neela and Rukmini, and the power social media can have in a friendship. Neela is more established in her career, while Rukmini's is rising. Someone writes a subtweet (I'm not sure who, I didn't get that far yet!), and then their relationship implodes. I'm a fan of everything Vivek writes, she is fantastic!

Other categories:

  • A book about fame
  • A book about love
  • A book about someone who is living your dream

— Nalini, Senior Branch Head


Crying in H Mart

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner

In this recent memoir, Michelle Zauner, also known as indie rock musician Japanese Breakfast, shares her experiences growing up Korean-American and processing the loss of her mother. Her powerful writing comes across just as intensely and personally as her amazing stage presence. In 2016 and 2017, I had her song "Everybody Wants to Love You" on constant rotation daily. In the music video, Zauner dons her mother’s wedding hanbok while shotgunning beer, playing pool, and riding motorcycles. Although the music video itself comes across as funny, reading about the relationship between Zauner and her mother adds another layer to the music video and her decision to wear her mother’s hanbok.

Other categories:

  • A book about your heritage or culture (if you're Korean)
  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet (possibly)
  • A debut book

— Taylor, Librarian


Recommendations from the Facebook Group

These are just some of the recommendations from our Facebook TPL Reading Challenge 2021 discussion group. You don't need a Facebook account to read all the recommendations from participants.



We'll be discussing this category, along with "a book that is narrative non-fiction", in a live online program on November 29. Visit tpl.ca/readingchallenge in the fall to register.