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01 SEPTEMBER, 2015

David Byrne’s Lending Library


A colorful case of the mosaic of influences that is art.

“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,” Bill Moyers wrote, “democracy is open, too.” A century and a half earlier, Thoreau extolled a different aspect of the library as a technology of thought, writing in his diary: “Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”

It was in a similar spirit that, in curating the 2015 Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, beloved musician David Byrne decided to turn his personal book collection into a lending library. “I love a library. The idea of reading books for free didn’t kill the publishing business,” he writes in The Guardian, “on the contrary, it created nations of literate and passionate readers. Shared interests and the impulse to create.”

His impressively worldly library of more than 200 titles spans nearly every aspect of music — from technique to theory, mechanics to memoirs, instruments to interviews — as well as psychology, art, architecture, history, and copyright law.

A lifelong lover of reading, Byrne grew up in a small suburban town near Baltimore, where the library was his only access point to the wider world and books became his formative creative sandbox. I asked him about his earliest memory of a formative book he borrowed from that childhood library and he points to The Phantom Tollbooth. How apt that the 1961 classic contains the now-iconic map of The Kingdom of Wisdom, with its Mountains of Ignorance, Foothills of Confusion, and Sea of Knowledge — an perfect metaphor for how reading itself equips us with an invaluable compass for navigating the landscape of life.

In resonance with Umberto Eco’s concept of the “anti-library,” Byrne points out that he hasn’t read all the books in his library, but has bought each one with the intention of reading it one day — a practice the Japanese call tsundoku.

I’ve digitized the complete alphabetized list of books in Byrne’s lending library, sent to me in a photograph by Brain Pickings reader Ben Hart. What emerges is confirmation that great art is always a mosaic of vibrantly varied influences.

  1. 40 Watts from Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio (public library) by Sue Carpenter
  2. A divina comedia dos Mutantes (public library) by Carlos Calado
  3. A Photographic Record: 1969–1980 (public library) by Mick Rock
  4. A Thelonious Monk: Study Album (public library) by Lionel Grigson
  5. A Whole Room for Music: A Short Guide to the Balfour Building Music Makers’ Gallery (public library) by Helene La Rue
  6. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (public library) by Brandon Labelle
  7. Acoustics for Radio and Television Studios (public library) by Christopher Gilford
  8. Africa Dances (public library) by Geoffrey Gorer
  9. African Music: A People’s Art (public library) by Francis Bebey
  10. African Rhythm and African Sensibility (public library) by John Miller Chernoff
  11. Afro-American Folk Songs (public library) by H.E. Krehbiel
  12. AfroPop! An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music (public library) by Sean Barlow & Banning Eyre
  13. All You Need to Know About the Music Business (public library) by Donald S. Passman
  14. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (public library) by Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman
  15. An Illustrated Treasury of Songs (public library) by National Gallery of Art
  16. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (public library) by Studs Terkel
  17. Arranged Marriage (public library) by Wallace Berman & Robert Watts
  18. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (public library) by Cristoph Cox & Daniel Warner
  19. Austin City Limits: 35 Years in Photographs (public library) by Scott Newton & Terry Lickona
  20. Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music (public library) by Deborah Pacini Hernandez
  21. Bandalism: The Rock Group Survival Guide (public library) by Julian Ridgway
  22. Beats of the Heart: Popular Music of the World (public library) by Jeremy Marre & Hannah Charlton
  23. Best Music Writing 2001 (public library) by Nick Hornby & Ben Schafer
  24. Best Music Writing 2002 (public library) by Jonathan Lethem & Paul Bresnick
  25. Best Music Writing 2003 (public library) by Matt Groening & Paul Bresnick
  26. Best Music Writing 2006 (public library) by Mary Gaitskill & Daphne Carr
  27. Best Music Writing 2007 (public library) by Robert Christgau & Daphne Carr
  28. Bicycle Diaries (public library) by David Byrne
  29. Black Music of Two Worlds (public library) by John Storm Roberts
  30. Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific (public library) by Heidi Carolyn Feidman
  31. Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music (public library) by Jas Obrecht
  32. Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (public library) by Ruy Castro
  33. Botsford Collection of Folk Songs Volume 1 (public library) by Florence Hudson Botsford
  34. Botsford Collection of Folk Songs Volume 2 (public library) by Florence Hudson Botsford
  35. Bound for Glory (public library) by Woody Guthrie
  36. Bourbon Street Black: The New Orleans Black Jazzman (public library) by Jack V Buerkle & Danny Barker
  37. Brazilian Popular Music and Citizenship (public library) by Idelber Avelar & Christopher Dunn
  38. Brutality Garden: Tropicalla and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (public library) by Christopher Dunn
  39. Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise (public library) by David Rothenberg
  40. But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (public library) by Geoff Dyer
  41. Cancioneiro Vinicius De Moraes (public library) by Orfeu
  42. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (public library) by Mark Katz
  43. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (public library) by Timothy White
  44. Chambers (public library) by Alvin Lucier & Douglas Simon
  45. Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir (public library) by Rodney Crowell
  46. Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk (public library) by Deborah Harry, Glenn O’Brien & Shepard Fairey
  47. Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao (public library) by Peter Culshaw
  48. Clothes Music Boys (public library) by Viv Albertine
  49. Cocinando! Fifty Years of Latin Cover Art (public library) by Pablo Yglesias
  50. Conjunto (public library) by John Dyer
  51. Conversations with Glenn Gould (public library) by Jonathan Cott
  52. Conversing with Cage (public library) by Richard Kostelanetz
  53. Copyrights & Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (public library) by Siva Vaidhyanathan
  54. Dancing in Your Head: Jazz, Blues, Rock and Beyond (public library) by Gene Santoro
  55. Desert Plants: Conversations with Twenty-Three American Musicians by Walter Zimmerman
  56. Diccionario de Jazz Latino (public library) by Nat Chediak
  57. Diccionario del Rock Latino (public library) by Nat Chediak
  58. Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution (public library) by Carlo Gebler
  59. Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion (public library) by Mickey Hart & Jay Stevens
  60. Essays on Music (public library) by Theodor W. Adorno
  61. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (public library) by Michael Nyman
  62. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (public library) by Negativland
  63. Fela Fela: This Bitch of a Life (public library) by Carlos Moore
  64. Fetish & Fame: The 1997 MTV Video Music Awards by David Felton
  65. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (public library) by Stephen Sondheim
  66. Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents (public library) by Bruno Nettl
  67. Folk Song Style and Culture (public library) by Alan Lomax
  68. Folk: The Essential Album Guide (public library) by Neal Walers & Brian Mansfield
  69. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (public library) by Iannis Xenakis
  70. Fotografie in Musica (public library) by Guido Harari
  71. Genesis of a Music (public library) by Harry Partch
  72. Give my Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (public library) by B.H. Friedman
  73. Gravikords, Whirlies, & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments (public library) by Bart Hopkin
  74. Guia Esencial De La Salsa (public library) by Jose Manuel Gomez
  75. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (public library) by Gary Marcus
  76. (public library) by
  77. Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity (public library) by Veit Erlmann
  78. Here Come the Regulars: How to Run a Record Label on a Shoestring Budget (public library) by Ian Anderson
  79. He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time (public library) by Jack Isenhour
  80. Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti (public library) by Steven Hager
  81. Hit Men (public library) by Frederic Dannen
  82. Hitsville: The 100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazines 1954–1968 (public library) by Alan Betrock
  83. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (public library) by Ellen Dissanayake
  84. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (public library) by Alice Echols
  85. How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond (public library) by John Powell
  86. Hungry for Heaven: Rock and Roll and the Search for Redemption (public library) by Steve Turner
  87. I Have Seen the End of the World and it Looks Like This (public library) by Bob Schneider
  88. I’ll Take You There Mavis Staples: The Staple Songers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway (public library) by Greg Kot
  89. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (public library) by George Prochnik
  90. Indian Music (public library) by B. Chaitanya Deva
  91. It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues (public library) by Paul Myers
  92. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (public library) by William P. Malm
  93. Javanese Gamelan (public library) by Jennifer Lindsay
  94. Jazz (public library) by William Claxton
  95. Knitting Music (public library) by Michael Dorf
  96. La Traviata: In Full Score (public library) by Giuseppe Verdi
  97. Laurie Anderson (public library) by John Howell
  98. Leon Geico: Cronica de un Sueno by Oscar Finkelstein
  99. Lexicon of Musical Invective (public library) by Nicolas Slonimsky
  100. (public library) by
  101. Light Strings: Impressions of the Guitar (public library) by Ralph Gibson & Andy Summers
  102. Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music (public library) by Eric Weisbard
  103. Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (public library) by Joanna Demers
  104. Listen to This (public library) by Alex Ross
  105. Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany (public library) by Stephen Sondheim
  106. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Music Made New in New York City in the ’70s (public library) by Will Hermes
  107. Love in Vain: The Life and Legend of Robert Johnson (public library) by Allen Greenberg
  108. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (public library) by Tim Lawrence
  109. Low (public library) by Hugo Wilcken
  110. Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-dirty in Seventies New York (public library) by James Wolcott
  111. Macumba: The Teachings of Maria-Jose, Mother of the Gods (public library) by Serge Bramly
  112. Mango Mambo (public library) by Adal
  113. Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song: MPB 1965–1985 (public library) by Charles Perrone
  114. Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll (public library) by Steven Kasher
  115. Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells (public library) by Tommy James
  116. Miles: The Autobiography (public library) by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe
  117. Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an imaginary Soul Superstar (public library) by Dori Hadar
  118. Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” (public library) by Alan Lomax
  119. Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture (public library) by Thurston Moore
  120. Music (public library) by Paul Bowles
  121. Music and Communication (public library) by Terence McLaughlin
  122. Music and Globalization: Critical Encounters (public library) by Bob W. White
  123. Music and the Brain: Studies in the Neurology of Music (public library) by MacDonald Critchley & R. A. Henson
  124. Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr
  125. Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession (public library) by Gilbert Rouget
  126. Music Cultures of the Pacific, The Near East, and Asia (public library) by William P. Malm
  127. (public library) by
  128. Music in Cuba (public library) by Alejo Carpentier
  129. Music, Language and the Brain (public library) by Aniruddh D. Patel
  130. Musica Cubana Del Areyto a la Nueva Trova (public library) by Dr. Cristobal Diaz Ayala
  131. Musical Instruments of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia with More than 4,000 Original Drawings (public library) by Ruth Midgely
  132. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library) by Oliver Sacks
  133. My Music (public library) by Susan D Crafts, Daniel Cavicchi & Charles Keil
  134. New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978-88 (public library) by Stuart Baker
  135. Noise: A Human History of Sound & Listening (public library) by David Hendy
  136. Noise: The Political Economy of Music (public library) by Jacques Attali
  137. Notations (public library) by John Cage
  138. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (public library) by David Toop
  139. On Sonic Art (public library) by Trevor Wishart
  140. Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Opera (public library) by Fred Plotkin
  141. Patronizing The Arts (public library) by Marjorie Garber
  142. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (public library) by Greg Milner
  143. Pet Shop Boys: Literally (public library) by Chris Heath
  144. Popular Musics of the Non-Western World: An Introductory Survey (public library) by Peter Manuel
  145. The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the Science of Song (public library) by Elena Mannes
  146. Presenting Celia Cruz (public library) by Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte
  147. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (public library) by Lester Bangs
  148. Queens of Havana: The Amazing Adventures of the Legendary Anacaona, Cuba’s First All-Girl Dance Band (public library) by Alicia Castro
  149. Recordando a Tito Puente: El Rey del Timbal (public library) by Steven Loza
  150. Reflections on Macedonian Music: Past and Future (public library) by Dimitrije Buzarovski
  151. Remembering the Future (public library) by Luciano Berio
  152. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording Music and Its Effect on Music (public library) by Michael Chanan
  153. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties (public library) by Ian Macdonald
  154. Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans (public library) by John Broven
  155. Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Pay: The History of Politics in the Music Industry (public library) by Steve Shapple & Reebee Garofalo
  156. Rock Archives (public library) by Michael Ochs
  157. Rock Images: 1970–1990 (public library) by Claude Gassian
  158. Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews (public library) by Timothy White
  159. Salsa Guidebook for Piano & Ensemble (public library) by Rebeca Mauleon
  160. Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music (public library) by Gerard Sheller
  161. Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City (public library) by Vernon W. Boggs
  162. Samba (public library) by Alma Guillermoprieto
  163. Sonic Transports:New Frontiers in Our Music (public library) by Cole Gagne
  164. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (public library) by Steve Goodman
  165. Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture (public library) by Kevin Phinney
  166. Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (public library) by Frances Dyson
  167. Soundings (public library) by Neuberger Museum
  168. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous (public library) by John Broven
  169. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening: Experiencing Aural Architecture (public library) by Barry Blesser & Linda-Ruth Salter
  170. Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music (public library) by Angelique Kidjo
  171. Starmaking Machinery: The Odyssey of an Album (public library) by Geoffrey Stokes
  172. Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer (public library) by Jonathan Cott
  173. Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians (public library) by Tom Schnabel
  174. Stomping the Blues (public library) by Albert Murray
  175. Tango: The Art History of Love (public library) by Robert Farris Thompson
  176. Text-Sound Texts (public library) by Richard Kostelanetz
  177. The ABCs of Rock (public library) by Melissa Duke Mooney
  178. The Agony of Modern Music (public library) by Henry Pleasants
  179. The Anthropology of Music (public library) by Alan P. Merriam
  180. The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library) by Amanda Palmer
  181. The Beatles: Recording Sessions (public library) by Mark Lewisohn
  182. The Book of Drugs: A Memoir (public library) by Mike Dougherty
  183. The Brazilian Sounds: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (public library) by Chris McGowan & Ricardo Pessanha
  184. The Faber Book of Pop (public library) by Hanif Kureishi & Jon Savage
  185. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (public library) by Bernie Krause
  186. The Human Voice (public library) by Jean Cocteau
  187. The Kachamba Brothers’ Band: A Study of Neo-Traditional Music in Malawi (public library) by Gerhard Kubik
  188. The Last Holiday: A Memoir (public library) by Gil Scott-Heron
  189. The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States (public library) by John Storm Roberts
  190. The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock (public library) by Charles White
  191. The Merge Records Companion: A Visual Discography of the First Twenty Years (public library) by Merge Records
  192. The Music Instinct (public library) by Philip Ball
  193. The Music of Brazil (public library) by David P. Appleby
  194. The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and the National Identity in Brazil (public library) by Hermano Vianna
  195. The New Woman Poems: A Tribute to Mercedes Sosa (public library) by Ne?stor Rodri?guez Lacore?n
  196. The Performer Prepares (public library) by Robert Caldwell
  197. The Rational and Social Foundations of Music (public library) by Max Weber
  198. The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl (public library) by Trevor Schoonmake
  199. The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa (public library) by Evan Eisenberg
  200. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (public library) by Alex Ross
  201. The Rolling Stone Interviews: The 1980s (public library) by Various
  202. The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (public library) by Greil Marcus
  203. The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World (public library) by Trevor Cox
  204. The Sun and the Drum: African Roots in Jamaican Folk Tradition (public library) by Leonard Barrett
  205. The Thinking Ear (public library) by R. Murray Schafer
  206. The Traditional Music of Japan (public library) by Kishibe Shigeo
  207. The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art (public library) by Tim Blanning
  208. The Veil of Silence (public library) by Djura
  209. The Wilco Book (public library) by Dan Nadel
  210. This Business of Music: The Definitive Guide to the Music Industry (public library) by M. William Krasilovsky & Sidney Shemel
  211. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession (public library) by Daniel J. Levitin
  212. Through Music to Self (public library) by Peter Michael Hamel
  213. West African Rhythms for Drumset (public library) by Royal Hartigan
  214. What Good are the Arts? (public library) by John Carey
  215. White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s (public library) by Joe Boyd
  216. Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955–Present (public library) by Gail Buckland
  217. (public library) by
  218. Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Languages (public library) by John Shepard, Phil Virden, Graham Vulliamy, Trevor Wishart
  219. Why is This Country Dancing: A One-Man Samba to the Beat of Brazil (public library) by John Krich
  220. Woody Guthrie: A Life (public library) by Joe Klein
  221. The Rough Guide to World Music: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia, and Pacific: An A-Z of the Music, Musicians and Discs (public library) by Simon Broughton & Mark Ellingham
  222. The Rough Guide to World Music: Salsa to Soukous, Cajun to Calypso (public library) by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman & Richard Trillo
  223. World: The Essential Album Guide (public library) by Adam McGovern
  224. Yakety Yak: The Midnight Confessions and Revelations of Thirty-Seven Rock Stars and Legends (public library) by Scott Cohen

Complement with Byrne on how music and creativity work, then revisit the reading lists of Gabriel García Márquez, Leo Tolstoy, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, and longtime Byrne collaborator Brian Eno.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Lucille Clifton Reads “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”


A glorious ode to claiming one’s belonging in that space between starshine and clay.

“One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated,” poet Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936–February 13, 2010) told Poets & Writers Magazine in 1992. And celebrate she did — for more than half a century, Clifton was an unparalleled and unflinching celebrator of the African American experience, the female body, and the human spirit. A government clerk who became a self-taught poet, then the poet laureate of Maryland, she has influenced generations of writers and artists. Her work continues to envelop in radiance the hard edges of life.

In this recording from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Clifton reads one of her most piercing poems, “won’t you celebrate with me,” found in the altogether magnificent Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010 (public library)

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Complement the wholly elevating Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton with a beautiful ode to what poetry does for the human spirit by Elizabeth Alexander, for whom Clifton has been a formative influence.

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31 AUGUST, 2015

The Silent Music of the Mind: Remembering Oliver Sacks


“I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music.”

I was a relative latecomer to the work of Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), that great enchanter of storytelling who spent his life bridging science and the human spirit — partly because I was not yet born when he first bewitched the reading public with his writing, and partly because those early books never made it past the Iron Curtain and into the Bulgaria of my childhood. It was only in my twenties, having made my way to America, that I fell in love with Dr. Sacks’s writing and the mind from which it sprang — a mind absolutely magnificent, buoyed by a full heart and a radiant spirit.

His intellectual elegance bowled me over, and I felt a strange kinship with many of his peculiarities, from the youthful affair with iron — although the 300-pound squats of my bodybuilding days paled before his 600 pounds, which set a state record and earned him the moniker Dr. Squat — to our shared love of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Indeed, it was his uncommon insight into the role of music in the human experience that first drew me to Dr. Sacks’s writing. I landed into Musicophilia and soon devoured his older writings. Both his science and his life were undergirded by a profound reverence for music — music seemed to be this intellectual giant’s greatest form of spirituality. He knew that the life of the mind and the life of the body were one, and understood that music married the two — an understanding he carried in his synapses and his sinews.

Nowhere did this embodied awareness, nor his luminous soul, come more vibrantly alive than in the remarkable story of how he once saved his own life by song and literature while running from a raging bull in a Norwegian fjord, told in his 1974 memoir A Leg to Stand On (public library) — the story by which I shall always remember him.

To commemorate this irreplaceable man, I asked artist Debbie Millman to create a piece of art illustrating the passage that captures not only the heart of that heartening story, but the spirit in which Dr. Sacks inhabited and exited our world.

The artwork is available as a print and I am donating all proceeds to the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

As the broken instrument of his body is buried motionless and mute into the earth, may the symphony of his spirit live on in his writing with the same eternally resounding vigor as what Dr. Sacks called “one of the world’s great musical treasures” in his final communication with the world:

What a privilege for this world to have been graced with this extraordinary human animal and his fully embodied mind. The only thing left to say is what Dr. Sacks himself wrote to his beloved aunt Lennie, who shaped his life, as she lay dying: “Thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.”

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31 AUGUST, 2015

Love, Kindness, and the Song of the Universe: The Night Jack Kerouac Kept a Young Woman from Taking Her Own Life


“I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge.”

In the late 1950s, a young woman named Lois Sorrells Beckwith did what many passionate book-lovers find themselves doing — she fell in love with an author through his work; not with the writing alone, but with the man. That man was Jack Kerouac and the book that tipped Lois over the edge of infatuation was his newly published novella The Subterraneans (public library), a semi-fictional account of a fervid romance.

But then Lois did something few ardent readers would dare to do.

A native New Englander then living in California, she moved back to the East Coast and, one fateful afternoon in 1958, mustered the timid brazenness to drive herself to Kerouac’s home in Northport, Long Island, hoping to meet him. She pulled up to the house and found him sitting under a tree in his front yard, meditating — a practice he had taken up some years earlier as he plunged into Buddhist philosophy.

So began a romance that lasted many years. Lois was twenty-three. Jack was thirty-six and had just published On the Road, the novel that would become a counterculture classic and catapult him into literary celebrity.

“I had fallen in love with the soul of this man,” Lois — the mother of my friend Sebastian Beckwith, whom I know through the wonderful and talented Wendy MacNaughton — tells me as she looks back on this unusual and electrifying adventure in love and literature.

The relationship continued, on and off, for years. The “on” phases were intensely beautiful — the two shared an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, an epicenter of the era’s creative culture, which they relished fully. Lois recounts:

We were drinking lots of wine and dancing and making love and listening to him read.

They went to poetry readings together and listened to music and led a life that Lois remembers as “pretty fast-paced and exhausting.” But it was also incredibly tender — every time he left the apartment, Jack wrote Lois a sweet note.

Writing, indeed, was not only what had brought them together but what kept them together. During the “off” phases, they wrote each other letters that sustained their romance. But marriage was never something either of them desired. Jack had already been married and divorced twice. Lois has fallen in love with his writing and respected it as his greatest commitment. She reflects:

I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge. And I loved being with him. But I never thought of marrying him — he was a writer, and he had to write.

And then Lois lost her mother, with whom she had been incredibly close. Gutted by grief and mired in a thick depression, she went to stay with her father for a while.

Late one night, there was a knock at the door. It was Jack, with an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his back. Already one of the country’s most famous writers, he had been away on a book tour when he received Lois’s letter about her mother’s death and her depression. Terrified that she might commit suicide, he had flown in, walked five miles from the other side of town with the giant device, and come to play Lois a song to lift her spirits.

This man, in whom the tender and the troubled always coexisted, had recognized in his beloved the wounded part of himself. He had extended to Lois the comforting care he was ultimately unable to grant himself. Lois recounts:

As he became more famous, he drank more — it was very sad.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Kerouac himself once wrote, and in this enormous gesture of kindness, he had transported himself to heaven, if only for a night.

Eventually, the couple parted ways as lovers but remained friends. In fact, it was Jack who introduced Lois to her husband, who became my friend Sebastian’s father.

And then, many years later, something unusual happened.

One day, when Lois was about to turn eighty and Jack had been dead for nearly half a century by the troubledness that eclipsed his radiant spirit, a piece of paper fell on her floor as she was moving some papers at home. On it, the phrase “universe — one song” was written in the handwriting of her youth.

Lois immediately remembered a vivid dream she had had all those years earlier, in that New York apartment. She recounts the dream:

I was just walking around on a very hot, sultry night — it was exciting, sensual — and I heard the most exquisite music. I asked someone what it was, and they said that it was the voices of all nationalities speaking. The dream was all about kindness — this huge love and kindness — so it made me think of Jack on the night of his heroic five-mile walk. And that’s still what I think about when I think about Jack.

Moved by the memory of the dream and Jack’s generous gesture, Lois penned a poem in remembrance of his kindness. Here she is, at eighty, reading it:

    a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

Complement Lois’s beautiful story with Kerouac on kindness and the “Golden Eternity,” the difference between genius and talent, and his “beliefs and techniques” for prose and life.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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