by Mike Knowles
Last weekend, I happened to catch the movie The Soloist on the movie channel. If you haven’t seen it, the film is about a reporter, Steve Lopez, who strikes up a friendship with a homeless schizophrenic name Nathaniel Ayers Jr. Steve hears the sound of Nathaniel’s violin playing on the street and soon learns that the homeless man was once a student at Juilliard. The movie chronicles their friendship and all and all it was pretty decent. One particular thing that struck me as interesting in the film was a question Nathaniel asked Steve. Nathaniel asked the reporter if his love for books was similar to way he felt about music. The reporter said no and changed the subject, but I thought about the question long after the movie ended.
I like music, but I am in no way an authority on it. I don’t devote massive amounts of time to music. I listen when I can, but I don’t go out of my way for it. I just don’t have Nathaniel’s passion for music. But books, books I love. Books I devote time to and read as often as I can. I would have to say that, unlike Steve Lopez, I find in books what Nathaniel Ayers Jr. finds in music.
My classical tastes are more for McBain than Beethoven. Writing for a whole orchestra is neat, but it is no way as cool as the way Ed McBain could weave the lives of the men and women of the 87th precinct together.
Rather than listen to Eric Clapton classic rock riffs, I’d rather read about John D. MacDonald’s classic PI. Playing the guitar is cool, but a PI living on a houseboat named Busted Flush is way more badass.
Punk has a lot of messages buried in the seemingly simple music, but I would rather listen to Ken Bruen and Jason Starr’ s daring use of language in their Hardcase Crime collaborations than anyone who headlined CBGG.
Heck who wants to listen to Canadian songstress, and all around skinny gal, Celine Dion when they can bury their nose in a McFetridge.
The more I thought about what Nathaniel had asked Steve the more I realized how I think about books. When I look at a book that has earned a place on my shelves, I don’t immediately recall the plot of the book. Instead, I remember particular scenes, description, and dialogue like they were favourite songs. Robert Parker’s workout conversations between Hawk and Spenser, Mike Hammer’s cold one liners, Stark’s mean descriptions, Eisler’s combat scenes. All of them are greatest hits to me.
Words hit me in a way music never has. I appreciate a good phrase more than a good song. When the movie ended, I remember enjoying the music of Nathaniel’s cello, but I remember a single clever description more. It was one of those things that was just so perfect, I had wished I had thought of it. Steve walked skid row narrating to himself for his newspaper column and he described seeing, “rats the size of meatloaf’s.” That line stuck in my head and I thought about how much I liked it long after I changed the channel. A description of rats will forever be my first thought when I think of that movie, not the beautiful songs, or the heartbreak of mental illness. Just rats the size of meatloaf’s.
Nathaniel’s question to Steve changed the movie for me. The homeless schizophrenic became so much more understandable when I realized we were the same. Something about books hits me deep inside in a way I can’t explain or define. And if my life were stripped away until I was left with nothing, like Nathaniel’s, I would still cling to the way I feel about books and the wonderful things inside them.