Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Miserable Experience/iPod Envy

I have been reading the unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for what seems like forever, although in reality it has only been three weeks or so. I have just passed the halfway point. Only 700 pages of tiny print to go.

They sure don’t write ‘em like this anymore, which is both a good and a bad thing. The book is ridiculously long, and riddled with tangents, some of which go on for fifty or more pages. In the middle of the story Hugo drops in an excruciatingly detailed 60-page account of the Battle of Waterloo. Why? Dieu only knows, because the battle has only the tiniest of connections with the plot. I’ve also encountered page after page of description of the beliefs and practices of an obscure Parisian convent, and a lengthy treatise on the Paris sewer system. I’m sure I’ll encounter more detours in the second half of the book.

That said, the novel is amazing, and everything I had hoped it would be. The story is moving, beautiful, and full of grace, in both the literary and theological senses. I know that a very famous musical is based on this book. I know people who normally hate musicals tend to love this particular one. And I am tempted to check it out. But only tempted. Eventually I come to my senses and remember that I hate musicals, no matter the source material. Now a Les Miserables Thick as a Notre Dame Brick progressive rock suite I could handle.

In other musical musings, I am experiencing iPod envy. My daughter Rachel bravely entered the iPod world last week. And I want my own iPod. I think. But what I really want doesn’t exist. I want the iPod that will hold 5,000 albums, not 5,000 songs, and I want it to automatically include all of the songs in my vinyl collection after I magically wave it in front of the stacks.

Mostly I fear the death of the glorious Album. I don’t care about the format. The album can come on vinyl, it can come on CD, it can come on 8-track tape for that matter. But I like the idea of buying a collection of songs. Sure, it’s a rare album where every song works. But there are many, many albums where the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts, even if some of the parts are better than others. Now with the ascension of iTunes and the resurrection of Napster I fear that the idea of a collection of songs will go the way of the dodo, the Edsel, and the gatefold album cover. Now it’s all about the song, at 99 cents a shot.

And this is simple Old Fart grousing, but when it comes right down to it I like the physicality, the massed thereness, of good, old-fashioned albums. I like the Space Age Bachelor Pad feel of walking into a room that is filled with vinyl and CDs. Enter the shrine if you dare. Yes, it’s idolatry. Damn it, I admit it. But where’s the fun in having eight gazillion songs in something smaller than your wallet? They should make an iPod the size of a Buick for something like that. Yeah, I know, it probably wouldn’t be portable (but think about this: Buicks have wheels; why not the iPod?).

So maybe I don’t want an iPod after all. But I’m glad Rachel has hers. Rachel is a great fan of musicals. And now she has little earphones.

17 comments:

zalm said...

Interesting combination of thoughts, Andy. It's been quite some time since I've read Les Miserables, so I can't tell you if you've got more tangents in store.

I wonder if Hugo's extraneous musings are a bit like the secondary or tertiary tracks on an album. Sure, you can read the abridged version or buy the soundtrack (or the soundtrack "highlights"—an abridgment of an abridgment of an abridgment. ack!). But there's something grand about tackling the original, digressions and all. iTunes may give you the power to buy just the tracks that can grab you in 30 seconds, but you might miss out on tracks that take longer to develop.

I think I'm somewhere in between your experiences and your daughter's. I'm devoted to my iPod, but I still buy lots of CDs. I probably don't devour and wear out albums the way I used to. But there's an added serendipity of living a musical life on shuffle that I wouldn't want to give up. I've rediscovered songs I haven't listened to in years. I've heard songs in new ways because of the unexpected juxtaposition of a randomized playlist.

megan, former blogger, now in hiding said...

Andy,
Sounds like your hung up on a size issue. It's not just about the size of the collection to impress people, it's how you USE the collection that impresses people.
And you can impress them with how you use an iPod I suspect. I wouldn't know... I don't have one and have envy too.
But buying a whole album has such ritual too. I like that. And I admit, I like to walk into a room and see the collection of albums as well. And well... I guess size does matter.

teddy dellesky said...

as much as i like a good mix now and again, i will never overlook my first love, the album.

i have an ipod, but haven't listened to it all that much. some of this is due to business. i can't pop them on and block out the world when so many things and people need my attention. plus, i just like to listen to music in the open air. thats the way i've always done it. it gives good music the potential to be heard by other people.

Joshua said...

andy, i'm not all that old but i harbor the same reservations about the ipod. the physicality of a well-tended collection, that's something worth preserving. of course, maybe it's the librarian in me talking.

an ipod is a little like a giant mix-tape, and to tell the truth, i like my mixes (or soundtracks, or "various artists," or what-you-will) to be addendums to the actual collection. i listen to the "various artists," but in practice i listen to them far less than i do the rest of my collection. my feeling is that the ipod would flip that ratio, and i don't want to do that.

i agree that "whole-album listening" as opposed to "random single listening" is a worthy art. there's also something gratifying about making a choice between one album and another. it puts reigns on the beast, so to speak, and reminds you that you can only enjoy god's creation fully when you enjoy it in moderation.

and that's why i'm not going to get an ipod.

Chris Parks said...

In those digressions are contained a large part of why Hugo wrote Les Miserables in the first place. He was as much about social and political commentary as he was about telling a good story.

i've seen a staged version of the musical. It's got some nice tunes to it. And it's stripped bare of the digressions, naturally enough.

Scott Sloan said...

Andy, I will always buy cds instead of downloading songs off of Napster, etc. because of the genre that I listen to. If I wanted to buy the latest pop album, then downloading makes sense.

However, I am an old fart like yourself who loves purchasing cds via Magnolias or the like, or on my favorite internet distributor sites.

Anonymous said...

my hope, as a vinyl enthusiast and ipod owner, is that the mass movement toward miniature digital music machines will up the bar for album offerings.

sure, there is something beautiful about listening to an album in it's entirety, but a great album can be hard to find these days. perhaps track offering will promote a higher level of album offerings to make a buyer want to capture an album rather than choice tracks. sure $4.95 for the best five songs is a great deal, but $9-$11 for a great album of 10-15 tracks, now that is a steal!

~ some guy who is a friend of some of your friends' friends.

Andy Whitman said...

Anonymous, I'd like to believe that a focus on individual tracks will up the bar for the overall quality of albums, but history says it won't.

Albums (as in 33.3 RPM vinyl records) didn't really come into their own (at least for pop music; classical and jazz were a little earlier) until the mid-'60s. Up until that time the pop music industry was singles-based, focusing on 45 RPM records. The end result was that when the music did start to make the transition to albums, those albums consisted of two or three good songs and eight songs of pure filler. It took a while for musicians to catch up, but eventually artists were able to produce albums where all or most of the songs were consistently good.

Now we're moving in a direction that is much more singles-oriented. The focus is again on individual songs. Given that, why should an artist worry about producing 12 - 15 great songs when 2 - 3 great songs, at 99 cents per shot, will suffice? We're not there yet, and I realize that CDs are still a viable medium, so musicians do currently have to focus on albums to some extent. But the trend seems to be away from CDs and toward MP3s. I have a hard time believing that that bodes well for the overall quality of songwriting.

I also think it changes the nature of the game. Short stories are fine. But so are novels. And we're losing the musical equivalent of the novel.

Mark K said...

1. Maybe Hugo got payed by the word. They used to do it that way.

2. "Thick as a Brick" - Jethro Tull reference (the band, not the 18th century farmer/author)

Andy Whitman said...

Mark wrote:

>1. Maybe Hugo got payed by the >word. They used to do it that >way.

Believe me, there are still places that pay by the word. Which is why you'll occasionally find me stringing together long, repetitive, lengthy, redundant, unnecessarily wordy, superfluously verbose, mind-numbingly banal sentences full of synonymous words that fundamentaly, essentially and basically mean the same thing.

It's an old trick.

>2. "Thick as a Brick" - Jethro >Tull reference (the band, not the >18th century farmer/author)

Indeed. I know it well.

teddy dellesky said...

more thoughts...

i agree with joshua. there is something about the physicality of the album that i can't(won't) let go. i have many great memories of buying an album, coming home, popping it in and devouring its contents (names, producers, lyrics, snippits of info., etc.) this is the stuff of the album concept that is worth hanging on to coupled with the fact that if you've stumbled onto something that is musically really great , it becomes like a friend that, upon playing the album, stops over every now and again.

Andy W. Anderson, Ph.D Candidate said...

I don't even know if you're still reading this comment block, but I had to weigh in on this considering my love of French literature, and (surprise surprise) my possession of both a CD of the musical and the musical itself in DVD form (although you have to view it on a computer because of the region code issue thing). I agree with Chris Parks that the majority of the digressions that Hugo filled his novels with are based on his social convictions and quite often on the fact that the man loved to read the words he wrote. He did indeed say of his birth "The century was two years old when I was born." If you want to borrow either of the two, I'd be happy to loan them to you (they are both, naturally in French, but the DVD has subtitles in english.)
There is an English version of the musical, but in my very humble opinion, it is a large pile of "le suck" so I wouldn't recommend it.
Wonderful entry as usual

Jeff Cannell said...

Andy, I have recently rediscovered vinyl lp's and have regathered a massive collection in my office- complete with my 1968 pioneer receiver and an old turntable. I have about 20 of the gatefold command label albums, and a dozen or so project 3 albums. Please visit me in the lounge sometime. I have been bouncing between "big Band Bossa Nova" by Enoch Light, "Million DOllar Weekend" by the Ventures, and a slew of Johnny Cash Sun Reissues.

(I forgot to mention Bullfrogs and Butterfly's as well)

I've decided to buy all new releases on vinyl and encode the songs from library cds.

BTW- YOu got to come by and listen to some of the Audiophile reissues of The Free Design with me.

Regarding Hugo: I want to here what he had to say about ancient sewers some time.

mg said...

I'm a little late in getting on in this discussion, but I too am an album fan. There is something to actually having a piece of completed work in your hands with cover art and lyrics to go with it. I love reading the liner notes and looking at the pictures and digesting the entire package while the music blasts in my room.

I don't have an i-pod, but I do have a small mp3 player (which holds about 2.5-3 albums). I used to use it when I ran, now I imagine I will use it when I bike to work. The majority of my music listening is done in the car on the way to work, I think that is where I get to the true essence of the music itself. If I am listening to something in open air, I tend to focus on the music and ignore everything else that is going on. I just can't be a casual listener I guess.

I can't make the switch over to buying single tracks. I do suppose that if I ever were to get more computer saavy, I would be able to judt purchase a single track that I liked. But I would much rather get the entire album from the library and then decide whether the album was worth buying. I suppose it is respect for the artist and the work they have done.

Good discussion thread. Obviously something we are all passionate about. (moreso than hugo!)

Andy Whitman said...

Michael, I loved this statement:

"If I am listening to something in open air, I tend to focus on the music and ignore everything else that is going on. I just can't be a casual listener I guess."

Yep. One of the first, uh, heated discussions I had with Kate early in our marriage concerned this very topic. She asked me when I was going to stop sitting around and do something. I assured her that I *was* doing something; I was listening to music.

She's long ago gotten used to it, although to this day she doesn't just sit and listen to music. But music is rarely if ever "background noise" for me. If it's on, then I want to pay attention to it (sometimes to the exclusion of people with whom I actually need to interact, sadly enough).

Zalm, Chris, and Andy, I appreciate your comments on Hugo. I somewhat enjoy the digressions, and I certainly recognize that they they reveal much more about Hugo's social and political beliefs than what is conveyed in the main story. And I'm learning a lot more about French history in the process. It's questionable how much value the knowledge of the Revolution of 1830 will bear in my life, but it's interesting in a Trivial Pursuit kind of way. What is more interesting and valuable, and what shines through, is Hugo's love for the least of society. That's a lesson that I would do well to remember frequently.

In any event, Les Miserables is a superb novel. Over the past few years I've been backtracking and re-reading (or reading for the first time) a lot of the "Great Novels" of western civilization. I don't know why our education system insists on inflicting Dickens or Hardy on fifteen-year-olds, but it does. And I hated them at the time. I simply hadn't lived enough life to appreciate them. Now I've read most of Dickens and Hardy (and many others as well), and I've been savoring the wisdom, the wit, and the delightful storytelling. Certainly "Les Miserables" has all of that.

Andy, I appreciate the offer, but I'm going to skip the musical. It's beloved by many. I just know that I won't be one of them. Sorry, I just don't like musicals.

Martin said...

Quoth Andy:

"One of the first, uh, heated discussions I had with Kate early in our marriage concerned this very topic. She asked me when I was going to stop sitting around and do something. I assured her that I *was* doing something; I was listening to music."

See, Andy, here Victor Hugo would come to your defense:

"A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor." -- V.H.

Among the lesser-known museums in Paris are the Sewer Tour and the Victor Hugo Museum. Both worthwhile if you're fans; perhaps not so much if you're not. I found them mildly interesting but not entirely engrossing.

Rob VG-R said...

I just want to mention something in this discussion regarding iPod use. I have an iPod, but I am also an advocate of the physical collection. I, too, like to be able to peruse lyrics and liner notes, making connections with producers and musicians who have worked on other projects. I love following bread crumb trails to new music. And there really is something to a well-organized CD/vinyl collection (I personally organize mine alphabetically by artist, then chronologically by release date within the artist's discography).

But the iPod allows me to take almost half of my current music collection with me wherever I go, whether driving across the country or biking across town. I don't have to pack up 100 CDs into a CD wallet, completely disrupting my organizational scheme. I still pull CDs off the shelf to listen to, but the iPod makes traveling much easier.