Music in Fiction and Nonfiction: The Playlist

The latest Booklist features a Core Collection of fiction and nonfiction books about music. These books are so cool they deserve their own playlist—so we made one. To follow are 20 essential music titles with songs chosen by Donna Seaman, Annie Bostrom, and yours truly. At the end of the post, we’ve provided a Spotify player with all our selections. Happy listening!



And After the Fire, by Lauren Belfer

In Belfer’s compelling blend of fact and fiction, a woman going through her late uncle’s belongings discovers an invaluable piece of music that poses ethical questions. That piece of music is by none other than Bach—might we suggest “Cantana No. 156?”


The Book of Harlan, by Bernice L. McFadden

When young Harlem jazz musician Harlan and a friend are invited to perform in Paris, they are drawn into the Nazi horrors, with devastating consequences. Pioneering tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins paved the way for sax-os at home by touring Europe extensively in the 1930s. Jam to his breakout hit, “Body and Soul.”


The Ensemble, by Aja Gabel

Former cellist Gabel’s stunningly resonant debut novel runs the gamut of human emotions as it follows the lives of the talented musicians—Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry—in a string quartet. Pair it with Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 7” performed by the Takács Quartet, widely regarded as the best in the biz.


Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Jumping between 1939–40 and 1992 to tell the story of a German American jazz band and its presumed-dead star trumpeter, Edugyan’s novel features jazz history and palpable period atmosphere. Ramp it up with some jazz from the massively popular Weimar party band Sid Kay’s Fellows.


The Jazz Palace, by Mary Morris

In Morris’ transfixing historical novel of immigrants and migrants in Prohibition Chicago, jazz connects Napoleon, an African American trumpeter from New Orleans; Benny, a rebellious Jewish piano player; and his Pearl, the daughter of a woman who runs a speakeasy. It’s a natural fit with “West End Blues” by King Oliver, the greatest Prohibition-era jazz cornet player from New Orleans.


The Music Shop, by Rachel Joyce

Frank’s nuanced musical knowledge and shop full of vinyl records connect customers to exactly the music they need—until a frail young woman challenges Frank to teach her how to listen. The novel dives deep into a number of artists, including Vivaldi—a great excuse to listen to “The Four Seasons: Summer” as performed by La Serinissima.


Power Ballads, By Will Boast

Boast’s affecting linked short stories about a musician, Tim, who begins on the tuba and graduates to the drums, riff on contemporary youth culture, thirtysomething life, aging rock stars, and how disappointment and love shape every generation. We all know the best power ballad is Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” so listen to that.


Sight Reading, by Daphne Kalotay

Composer-conductor Nicholas, a rising star when he joins the Boston Conservatory, falls in love with a student, violinist Remy, and leaves his wife and daughter, a cataclysm Kalotay sensuously dramatizes over two decades. Pair it with Italian violinist Uto Ughi’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto No. 3,” a sensuously dramatic song if there ever was one.


Wonderland, by Stacey D’Erasmo

D’Erasmo avoids clichés in this rhapsodic portrait of an American rock ’n’ roll diva who, during exciting and exhausting European tours, reflects on her bohemian childhood, adding up to a keenly observed, sharply funny tale of a questing musical life. American rock ‘n’ roll diva Patti Smith has also managed to avoid clichés in her music and her bohemian life, so listen to her song “Redondo Beach”—a total bop.




Born to Run, By Bruce Springsteen

In this entertaining autobiography, Springsteen traces his trajectory from working-class New Jerseyan to humble superstardom in prose that recalls his unique songwriting style in its insight, light, and shadow, and that will move even the most cursory of fans. You have exactly one chance at guessing what song you should listen to as you read it.


Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land, by Sandy Tolan

By telling the story of musically gifted and brave Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan—who saw his father and brother murdered yet realized his dream of opening a music school—Tolan encapsulates the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict and celebrates the transcendent power of music. Check out Aburedwan’s song “Sodfa.”


Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood, by Ice-T and Douglas Century

In this no-holds-barred and down-to-earth memoir, rapper and actor Ice-T recalls his first encounters with racism, his dangerous street life, and his experiences on tour. Listen to Ice’s first hit, “F*** tha Police,” with NWA.


I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway, by Greg Kot

The Staples family went from a hardscrabble life in Mississippi to Chicago’s church circuit to worldwide fame, merging the genres of roots, gospel, and soul while influencing and being influenced by the civil rights era. Their biggest hit is also the name of Kot’s book, so listen to that.


Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music, by Christopher C. King

Music fanatic and 78 rpm record collector King shares his passion for and immersion in the intriguing story of the village music of Epirus, the northwestern region of Greece, in this richly informative and enthralling chronicle. Violinist Alexis Zoumbas’s “Epirotiko Mirologi” is a classic.


Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, by Nigel Cliff

In this compulsively readable, heartwarming biography, Cliff traces the adventures of Texan pianist Van Cliburn, who won Moscow’s first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 and became an adored classical-music superstar. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor” is a great place to start.


Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story, by Jewel

Jewel’s appealing memoir tells the ultimately inspiring story of her turbulent life and reveals the context behind some her most loved songs. One of these is “You Were Meant for Me” (and IIIIIIIIIIIII was meant for youuuuuuuuuuuu).


A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism, by Paul Youngquist

Visionary pianist and composer Herman Poole Blount became Sun Ra and formed his dazzling Arkestra in the 1950s as a visitor from Saturn here to liberate his disenfranchised black brothers and sisters via cosmic music inspired by African cultures, thus setting the foundation for today’s Afrofuturism. His most famous song is “Space is the Place” which, in addition to hearing, you need to watch.


Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, by Hisham D. Aidi

In this fascinating examination of young European and American Muslims and their search for “a nonracist utopia,” Aidi touches on the power of music to effect social change. Check out Islam’s biggest rock star, humanitarian Sami Yusuf.


Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, by Todd S. Purdum

In telling the stories behind beloved show tunes, Purdum also details the evolution of the Broadway musical and the ways in which Rogers and Hammerstein’s contributions have (and have not) held up. Oklahoma! has definitely held up—just listen to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” from the original cast recording of the film soundtrack.


They Can’t Kill Us until They Kill Us, by Hanif Abdurraqib

Critic and poet Abdurraqib’s insightful essays consider music’s ties to culture and memory, life and death, on levels personal, political, and universal. He also made his own playlist for this book, from which we plucked a few key tracks to close out our playlist.




About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the former Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist.

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