Our Reading Lives

What Your Brain Sounds Like On Books

Edd McCracken

Staff Writer

Edd McCracken lives in Scotland, dislikes book spine breakers and loves when small words harmonise to make big ideas. Follow him on Twitter:  @EddMcCracken

Everyone has synaesthesia.

Thankfully, this is not some terrible equine-meat borne virus. It is when our synapses put their keys in a bowl and pair up in off-kilter ways, giving objects, things, words, concepts an unexpected sensory rush and association. Tuesdays are red, for example. The letter W smells like Gorgonzola. The number 256 is maternal. For some people synaesthesia can be an acute, debilitating condition. But I think there might just be traces of it in all of us. For me, my synapse-swapping happens when I read.

I hear books. When I read, music sometimes wafts or simply blurts from the pages. It can be in the rhythms and cadences of the writing, or simply in the book’s mood. It is not literal or superficial. I can’t read Wuthering Heights without hearing Kate Bush’s caterwaul, for example. Rather, music hums from the book’s core.

Hearing books is handy if you need to explain that most subjective of things – what a piece of literature does to your head. This is helpful if, like myself, you have eulogised a certain book to friends and family, only for them to be unmoved by it.

Play them the music that the book set off in your head. Maybe, just maybe, they might understand you better.

Music and books. Books and music. Two great passions entwined.

Here are a few examples of my music-literary synaesthesia. This is what my brain sounds like on books. What about you?

USA I: Is A Monster by Dan Deacon is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 

Dan Deacon – USA I: Is a Monster

The same could be said for both song and book: stirring classical stylings give ways to technological crunch, before melding them together to produce something startling, ridiculously satisfying, and suggestive of something bigger than yourself.


Black Heart by Calexico is The Borders Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy

Calexico – Black Heart

The sand-blasted beauty of McCarthy’s novels is transmuted into just 4 minutes and 49 seconds of mariachi grandeur. It is the sound of haunted men. It is the soundtrack for vainglorious acts of self-destruction. It is gorgeous. It is stoic. It is McCarthy in song.


Drunken Galleon by Walls is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Like the novel, Drunken Galleon is a piece of art cut adrift. In Norwegian Wood, terrible events induce a narcotic fugue rather than gnash on raw nerves. This is the sound of a life shorn of sharp edges, like the snow falling in the Kyoto mountains.


Glosoli by Sigur Ros is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Sigur Ros – Glósóli

This is all about rhythm. Both slowly build with portent. Layer upon intriguing, pretty layer is laid. There is magic in them chords. Building, always building. And then a climax that manages to be both apocalyptic yet comforting, breath-taking yet inevitable. It leaves you shaken but exhilarated.


I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges is The Damned United by David Peace

The Stooges – I Wanna Be Your Dog


Inbetween Days by The Cure is Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

The Cure – Inbetween Days

A suburban jangle hangs over both these works. It encapsulates a particularly adolescent moment: when not having a girlfriend is at once the most tragic yet ultimately cosmically heroic thing you can happen to you.

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