David Byrne Likes Reading Aloud to His Friends

“Sharing words is like sharing food,” says the musician and former Talking Heads frontman, whose new book is “American Utopia,” with Maira Kalman.

What books are on your night stand?

“The Overstory,” by Richard Powers, taking the long view: a poetic view of human generations and activity measured in tree-time. The writing is beautiful and often heartbreaking.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” by Marlon James.

“The Economics of Belonging,” by Martin Sandbu.

“Perfumes: The Guide,” by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. A book that attempts to answer the question how to capture a smell in words. I don’t often wear a scent, but their writing is inspirational nonetheless — it’s a kind of crazy poetry. For example: “I don’t mean…, ‘I want a smell like rotting meat and genitals,’ with which she scents her disturbing postmodern gallery installation. I mean perfume for collectors, people interested in the different messages it’s possible to get across in perfume, in how wearing it changes the way we live and think.”

“The Hidden Life of Trees,” by Peter Wohlleben. Yes, there’s a tree theme. We’ve learned a lot about trees recently. Apparently they communicate with one another via chemicals that waft on the wind and via a fungal network underground. They warn of parasites, they feed their fellows in time of need. Like people, trees are surprisingly social — they are at their best when there are many grouped together.

What’s the last great book you read?

“The Technology Trap,” by Carl Benedikt Frey, made me look at the industrial revolution, invention, sleeping beauties, contexts and the forces that shape our societies differently. Counter to much conventional wisdom there was plenty of innovation and invention before the industrial revolution — but it seems there was either no need for it or it was actively discouraged by the aristocracy, who saw it as threatening: New inventions that would leave large numbers of peasants unemployed might provoke an uprising.

Techies and economists love to point out that the textile machines the Luddites opposed in the 19th century brought greater prosperity to all — but it took three generations before the benefits kicked in, and there was a lot of pain and suffering in the meantime. And as Frey points out, history is made in the short term.

I also liked Edward Wilson-Lee’s “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.” Columbus’s son Hernando amassed the largest library in the world, and one of the catalogs of this library was only recently discovered. When you have that many things — and this doesn’t apply only to books — how you order them, how they are described, determines how that information is used and perceived. To name is to control.

The chapters where Hernando accompanies his dad on later voyages to the New World reveal what a bizarre and vicious monster Christopher was. He believed the earth was in the shape of a woman’s breast, and that the nipple was located somewhere off the coast of Venezuela. So he may have been right about the world being round (though others knew this previously), but on other counts he was a wee bit off.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

None. Classic movies, yes. I’ve been catching up on those.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

On a train. Midafternoon, taking a work break. At a counter. Before the pandemic I would often eat dinner at a counter at a nearby restaurant and bring a small tablet to read from. It’s not sad, I do have friends, but immersing myself in a good book or essay is a joy. And for some reason reading among strangers is something I miss very much.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“Exact Thinking in Demented Times,” by Karl Sigmund: a history of the Vienna school of philosophers, physicists, economists and lunatics. Ernst Mach was part of this group — he was not convinced that atoms exist, though in many other ways he was prescient. The much-admired philosopher Wittgenstein didn’t seem to get along with anyone. At one point he believed he had said all there was to say about philosophy and logic, so he became a schoolteacher. He was forced to transfer a few times for beating his pupils too severely.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Some of Ted Chiang’s stories, which might be called science fiction, and Samanta Schweblin’s very disturbing short stories in her collection “Mouthful of Birds.” There are song lyricists I admire — many of whom are songwriters who write very different from the way I do. Mark Kozelek, who goes by the name of Sun Kil Moon, and Kurt Wagner of Lambchop both often write about banal situations in ways that have large emotional resonance. Their lyrics are conversational — something I haven’t been able to do.

Who are your favorite musician-writers? Your favorite memoir by a musician?

Caetano Veloso’s memoir, “Tropical Truth.” His description of the tropicalia era (late ’60s) in Brazil is a bit like Sebald’s book “Rings of Saturn”: Veloso wanders through the chronology of his life at the time, but can also detour for long stretches with deep and generous dives into the work of others — artists, filmmakers, writers — who affected him and his colleagues at that time. I love that sense of music not being an isolated thing but existing among everything else that goes on. Brazil became a military dictatorship and Veloso and many others ended up in jail, and eventual exile in London. Brazil is going through a similar period now.

What are the best books about music you’ve read?

“Fargo Rock City,” by Chuck Klosterman, was pretty great.

Also “Waves Passing in the Night,” by Lawrence Weschler, about Walter Murch. The old idea of a harmony of the spheres might have a bit of truth to it! The universe operates by “musical” laws was the old belief — we musicians might nod in agreement. Murch has also written about sound as it manifests in his work as a sound editor of movies. (“Blink of an Eye.”) While not exactly music these insights influence how I listen to the world.

Do you have any comfort reads?

Haha, a guilty pleasure — H. P. Lovecraft.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Oh yes, I often send clippings of inspiring passages. And often I then get others back. I have read passages aloud to friends. Sharing words is like sharing food.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I’ll turn it around — most writers should avoid writing about writers as their main characters. I know, I know, “write what you know.”

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

Hmm, is there a difference? A great idea changes the way I see things and there is joy in that transformation. Ideas can touch the heart, and an emotional encounter or moment does the same — it changes how one senses and perceives the world. I sense that this imposed binary, “feel” versus “think,” is akin to what Hernando Colón discovered as he sought to bring order to his thousands of books. By creating somewhat artificial definitions and categories he had bestowed order and utility, but he had closed off part of the imagination. The Dewey Decimal System is a series of dams, halting and restricting imagination and connection.

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