Maria Popova of Brainpickings describes herself as “an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large.” Literary Jukebox, a site where she matches quotes from books with songs, is one of her side projects. Popova talked to LJ about her own LJ, which turns one today.
How did you come up with the idea for a site pairing book excerpts and songs? Is there something about music and the written word that makes them have a particular affinity for each other?
Music, for me, is an enormous trigger of mnemonic associations—of time, place, mood, emotion, the smell of fresh-cut grass behind your best friend’s house when you were 18 and first heard that song. I have music on practically all the time and spend an inordinate portion of my waking hours reading, so it’s unsurprising that this synesthetic quality would manifest itself [for me] most powerfully in the relationship between literature and music—a natural crossing of these two mental libraries.
Literary Jukebox began in the summer of 2012 as a private delight, while my partner and I were courting each other and sending one another a song a day. I was traveling and had just finished reading the second volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, which I found remarkably resonant with so much of my life and contemporary culture as a whole. So I got the idea to let my marginalia from the book inspire the daily songs, which I sent along with the respective Sontag excerpt. I did this for a week, until I returned from my trip, but was utterly enchanted by the idea and decided to transform this private joy into an ongoing public project. Thus, Literary Jukebox was born.
When you’re making a match, do you generally begin with the book or with the music? Or does it vary?
It’s overwhelmingly rooted in the literature, though every once in a long while, I’d be listening to a song and it would remind me of something I’ve read and loved.
What criteria do you use for matching books and songs?
Highly subjective ones—sensibility, mood, associative trails. The central message or theme of both the song and the literary excerpt are always aligned—for me, that is, which of course bespeaks the subjectivity of the project.
You have a pretty wide range of genres and subjects for the books, as well as types of music—how do you find/choose the material? What is your discovery process?
I have an enormous personal library of marginalia—notes I’ve taken on everything I’ve read in the past ten years or so, dogeared pages, highlighted passages, and other markings on my physical tomes as well as extensive Evernote clips of notable excerpts and quotes from my favorite books. Most of the time, a song comes to me as I’m reading or revisiting some of those marginalia.
Lately, I’ve become more deliberate about dates, timing Literary Jukebox pairings with authors’ birthdays. It seems arbitrary, the birthday as a concept in general, but it’s actually a wonderful anchor point for our collective memory, a great excuse to celebrate a beloved writer, reminding us why she is important and timelessly wonderful.
Is there a passage or a song for which you haven’t been able to find a pairing yet? Or any that proved especially difficult? Or any of which you’re particularly proud?
The magic of it is that because the associations are so elastic, it’s never hard to find a match, though I’ve found myself on several occasions severely split between two song options for the same passage. My favorite pairing is the very first one: Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West and Astrid Williams’s “I’m the Boy for You.” I also greatly enjoyed pairing Carl Sagan with Karen O and Proust with Alexi Murdock.