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Bookcases for “keepers” hold a reverence for reference

March, 2011

Home and hearth: The warmth of my small apartment is mainly fueled by the bookcases that dominate it. It’s here that my array of reference books and other “keepers” rest, ready to serve me when needed.

That is a very comforting feeling, as many of these books are unavailable free on the Internet (although they all remain in print), despite Google’s growing ministrations. When I discover an artist and want further info on where to go next, these books represent my lifeline. Without further ado, welcome to my world:

Baker’s Dictionary of Music, by Nicholas Slonimsky. The motherlode. The Russian-American Slonimsky was a legendary composer, conductor, lexicographer and champion of modern music (from Varèse to Zappa) with a photogenic memory. This idiosyncratic work (he describes himself as a “failed wunderkind”) —from biographies to musical terms of all genres and styles—is culled from his works in a rich life that lasted 101 years. Also: His Lexicon of Musical Invective is a delightful compendium of rotten reviews critics gave much of the world’s greatest music.

The Penguin Companion to Classical Music, by Paul Griffiths. While lacking the sly charm of Slonimsky, Griffiths is perhaps more rigorous describing the music and its impact.

Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. From the front lines (in ancient Greece and onward), these essays (many by composers) offer a sense of musical development as continuity as well as controversy. No formal music education is needed to enjoy this fascinating volume.

Classical Music in America, by Joseph Horowitz. It’s been quite a struggle to wean Americans away from the European influence, and Horowitz tells the tales with page-turning panache.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross. The New Yorker’s polyvalent—and highly readable—classical music critic demystifies what many think of as “thorny” modern music. Ross is a born communicator.

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (concise edition), edited by Philip Larkin. Distilled from the six-volume set from the famed British critic covers all stripes of non-classical musicians. A big plus: bibliographies for further study.

Germany gets creative with public bookcases. We take comfort in private libraries. Photo: Sir James, Creative Commons

The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski. This is easily the best biographical work on the R&R era and its offshoots, with not an ounce of puffery. The most recent edition was published in 2001.

The Mojo Collection (4th edition), edited by Jim Irvin & Colin McLear. This year-by-year survey, from 1953 onward, provides the history and context behind some of greatest albums ever made (including compilations and reissues) by 50 of Britain’s top music journalists.

The Pop, Rock & Soul Reader, edited by David Brackett. Seminal essays, reportage and reviews from both sides of the Atlantic, stretching back to the Tin Pan Alley era, with cogent introductions from McGill’s Brackett.

The History of the Blues, by Francis Davis. One of the most elegant stylists among critics tackles the foundations of American popular music with great wit and empathy.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, by Jeff Chang. The standard for hip-hop history, from ghetto to gold records. Even if you’re not a rap fan, this is enormously interesting stuff.

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, by Will Friedwald. As opinionated as it is profoundly informed—Barbra Streisand doesn’t know what hit her!—this monumental work ranges from Sinatra to Dylan and beyond, crooners to soul singers. It reads as beautifully (so many different descriptions of voices!) as fine writing in essay-like formats as it does as a standard reference.

The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (ninth edition), by Richard Cook & Brian Morton. This sprawling work, acclaimed as the finest reference of its kind, covers almost everything in print with judgments that trace the progress of musicians, well-known and obscure, past and present.

Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001, by Whitney Balliett. While at the New Yorker, Balliett tracked jazz comings and goings in the most comprehensive prose style of any critic; reading his columns, you get the sense of being “in-the-moment,” which of course is the key to jazz. Also: American Musicians II, his legendary profiles of 70 artists, from old-timers to modernists, wherein he effortlessly lets them tell their own stories.

5001 Nights at the Movies and For Keeps, both by Pauline Kael. Passionate, personal, highly opinionated (advocate as well as adversary), former New Yorker critic Kael (who died in 2001), remains the writer everyone else in moviedom has aspired to. The first book is synthesized from her 10 collections of reviews and capsule blurbs of films she wrote for the magazine and repertory cinemas in San Francisco, from all parts of the globe and all eras, the latter contains over 275 of her the most memorable critiques, covering 30 years from 1965. Critics agree this is “the nimblest 1,250 pages around” by a “singularly lively voice.”

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson. A masterpiece blend of opinion and facts on actors, directors and behind-the-scenes personnel is the book any movie fan needs. As in so many of the books listed here, once you get to know the critic’s biases, you can judge for yourself.

Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini and Robert Porfirio. Film noir—hard-boiled pulp fiction with snappy, resolutely dark dialogue—is my not-so-guilty pleasure. I even think the bad ones, and there are many, are good. Including the more modern neo-noir, this tome features full credits, plot synopses and analyses: Indispensable!

Dictionary of American Slang, third edition, by Robert L. Chapman with Barbara Ann Kipfer. Slang is so often here-today-gone-tomorrow that a dictionary may seem obtuse. On the contrary, these 19,000-plus words accompanied by contextual examples from the rich American pop-culture vernacular tell us so much about changing times. A browser’s delight.



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