Self-help books as a palate cleanser
Ryan H. Walsh’s much-lauded “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” recounts a creatively rich year in Boston during which the music scene inspired both local musicians and big names, most importantly Van Morrison, who developed his revered album here. Walsh is the leader of the local indie band Hallelujah the Hills as well as marketing manager at Emerson College’s performance series ArtEmerson. This is his first book.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
WALSH: A book of essays, “Dead Girls” by Alice Bolin, about why so many novels and TV shows center around a dead woman. I’m a mega-fan of “Twin Peaks,’’ so this is a healthy thing for me to interrogate. I’m also 20 pages into the most recent book in the 33 1/3 series about albums. This is by Amy Gentry about Tori Amos’s “Boys for Pele,’’ an album I adore and one that hit me hard in high school. These books are under 200 pages, like a book-length essay.
BOOKS: Are those books typical of your reading?
WALSH: I like a lot of nonfiction, books of essays, memoirs, and then poetry. I don’t read enough fiction. I don’t know why I have strayed away from it so much in the past 10 years. As long as I’m reading I’m not going to beat myself up.
BOOKS: What are the most recent memoirs you have read?
WALSH: Two memoirs of people I love, David Lynch and Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco. Their memoirs couldn’t be more different. Lynch wrote “Room to Dream” with Kristine McKenna. She does a standard biography chapter, and then Lynch will respond to it. Tweedy’s is this sweet portrait of his life as a musician, his family, and his addiction. For someone who writes songs, his discussion of his techniques he uses to write lyrics was invaluable for me.
BOOKS: Do you read music criticism?
WALSH: I read a lot by [music critic] Lester Bangs for my book. This summer I read Jessica Hopper’s “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.” That’s a masterstroke, to call out the shortcomings of that profession in just the title. She’s a great writer.
BOOKS: When do you do most of your reading?
WALSH: It was a 24-hour affair when I was writing my book. It was brutal. Being able to read for pleasure again has reinvigorated my enjoyment of it. I never put any pressure on myself to read a book all the way through. I have John Ashbery’s two-volumes of collected poems. I think nothing of picking up one of the books and reading here and there. I really love his poems.
BOOKS: How did you start reading poetry?
WALSH: It started with lyrics. I loved the album CDs that came with the lyric booklets. Reading lyrics will lead you to poetry because they are cousins.
BOOKS: Who was the crossover poet for you?
WALSH: It was probably was David Berman of the Silver Jews, who is also a poet. His collection “Actual Air” blew me away.
BOOKS: Who were the novelists you focused on before you drifted away?
WALSH: “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace exploded my brain in college. It takes place in Boston, where I’m from, where nothing cool ever happens. And the main character was a film student. I was a film student. I couldn’t get enough of it.
BOOKS: What other books have you found inspiring?
WALSH: Sometimes when I get sick of reading about just one individual’s life I read self-help books. It’s like a palate cleanser. One of the most influential ones for me has been “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, an instruction book on mediation. Even if you never meditate it’s helpful. I still think about stuff in that book.
BOOKS: Are you ever embarrassed to carry self-help books around?
WALSH: Sometimes I feel goofy, but why not? It’s like talking to your friend but in a book form. Some of them have embarrassing titles, which can be weird if you’re reading them on the train.
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