The Bookshelf in My Mind

Jaclyn at Is Well Read was kind enough to write about my book habits last week, after waiting months for my As (to her good Qs).

Photo by Deua Medeiros
Ted Kulczycky, better known as Karaoke Ted in some circles, is a Toronto-based musician, bartender and professional cat wrangler who claps enthusiastically in the bottom left corner of this DEVO video. Ted mulled over these questions for months and it was truly worth the effort. Read through to the end to find out why he lists a Chilton auto repair manual as one of his must reads.

What kind of a reader are you?
My reading habits are:
I read on public transit.
I read in the lavatory.
If I’m really engaged in a book or article, I usually spend every moment reading it until it’s finished.
I read fairly fast, although I’ve never timed myself.
I read a great deal of non-fiction of most varieties, but very little fiction.

Have you read any good books about karaoke?

I haven’t really encountered too many books in English (my only language) about karaoke. There are a couple of books with “karaoke” in the title that are actually about other subjects. Usually, “karaoke” is used pejoratively. I’m not crazy about them.

There’s a karaoke guide (Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Field Guide to Karaoke by Raina Lee and Michael Perry) that seemed okay. I just finished Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life by Brian Raftery. I appreciated the spirit of what he was trying to do which is kind of be a history/philosophy/personal narrative, but I don’t think he quite nailed it.

What’s the best music biography that you’ve read?

I’ve read a LOT of musician bios, and most aren’t very good. My top 5 favourite music-related books of all time are:
1. Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions
2. Rob Bowman, Soulsville USA
3. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll
4. Jim DeRogatis & Carmel Carrillo, Kill Your Idols
5. Jann Wenner, Lennon Remembers

I feel guilty because I’ve left out stuff like chord books, songbooks, instrument catalogues, etc. People always tell kids that they should read books because “Reading is good.” But I feel like too much emphasis is placed on reading for it’s own sake. I emphasize to my little cousins and nephews that books are good because they can teach you about anything you’re interested in: sports, music, sex, drugs, whatever…

Based on the quality of their lyrics, are there any musicians you think should write books?
Some of my favourite musicians and lyricists have written books and generally they’re not the go-to books on my music shelf. David Byrne’s books have seemed “merely interesting.” Lennon’s stuff is kind of funny but “kind of funny” is small praise taken in the context of the greatness of his music. Generally, I think people tend to be geniuses of one art or another.

Joe Jackson (the New Wave musician, not the Jackson family bully) wrote an autobiography called A Cure for Gravity that’s notable for a couple of reasons. Primarily, he actually wrote it. Most musician autobiographies are based on interviews that are pasted together by a hack ghost-writer (watch Season 2 of Californication), and read as such. Jackson’s book has a clear authorial voice that employs such literary forms as arguments, themes and motifs. I love James Brown, but you won’t find these devices in The Godfather of Soul: The Autobiography. Brian Eno’s diary A Year With Swollen Appendicies is interesting enough, but I’ve always thought that he should write a straightforward book just pontificating about art and music.

Tell me about your collection of books about NYC. How did it get started?
I’ve got about 200 titles or so, everything from biographies of prominent historical figures to restaurant guides. It got started (like most collections) because I was interested in the subject. What really enabled that collection to grow, however, was the fact that I was working in the remainder book business in the period of 1999-2004. Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film aired on PBS and was released on DVD, and generated a whole new interest in NYC history and lore. And of course, September 11th stimulated the publishing and re-publishing of hundreds of books about the city. Most of the titles eventually came through our bookstores, and my staff discount meant that I was getting books for half of 20% of the list price.

There are so many classic New York books of all genres and I think most of them deserve their reputation. Michael Wallace’s Gotham is the definitive history (to 1898) and I hope that he eventually releases the long-promised second and third volumes. But my favourite New York book is probably American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche. While telling the story of the clean-up at Ground Zero, Langewiesche argues that New Yorkers ability to improvise, ignore rules, and reinvent themselves is the source of their greatest achievements.

Has a book ever influenced the way you think about your life or the world?
I studied philosophy for 5 years, and I can go on for weeks about the “transcendental unity of apperception.” So I would have to say, that books in particular, but art and culture in general influence my life and the way I think about the world. 
Actually, I’d probably take it even farther than that. Books, music and film ARE my world to a great extent. For better or worse.

What book do you pretend to have read, but never actually have?
I’ve probably done it loads in my life, particularly when I was flirting with a career in academia. My specialty was film and philosophy, which for some reason at the time, meant that I was supposed to be discussing politics and psychology (which is part of why I got out of there). I can guarantee you that I’ve read none of Lacan’s or Fanon’s primary texts, but I could win an argument about them at a faculty luncheon.

If you were a book, what book would you be?
I’d like to think of myself as an encyclopaedia. I’m probably actually more like one of those crazy religious comic books that scary people hand you on the street.

How do you organize your bookshelf?
The bookshelf in my mind is extremely Platonic. Organized by subject, author, title and infinitely cross-referenced in a perfect database. The bookshelves in my living room are somewhat more Aristotelian. Organized by size for maximum shelf efficiency. Then rapidly disorganized by frequent use.

What character from a book would you like to call your friend in real life?
No fictional characters leap to mind, but I think of Walt Whitman’s line in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” every time I cross from Brooklyn to Manhattan: “I am with you, and know how it is.” 
I feel blessed to have such an awesome travelling companion.

Ted’s Must Reads
When I was working in bookstores, those “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books were really popular. And these repeat customers would come in looking for those books and browse the “Self-Help” section. When “Chicken Soup for the Soul Volume 37” wasn’t doing it for them anymore, they’d have to up the dosage to “Chicken Soup for the Anglophone Bank-Teller with a Bad Back’s Soul” and I’d start to get depressed.

The warm comfort of “Chicken Soup” is not what builds “soul.” I believe that character comes from dedication, commitment, involvement, and wrestling with difficult thoughts and feelings. I used to say that reading one of the big books of philosophy, religion or literature cover-to-cover was required for true self-improvement. But I’m now starting to suspect that reading ANY really thick coherent book will do the trick. Think of reading an entire dictionary! If you can do it, I bet you’d really learn some things. I don’t know that reading an entire phone book will reveal any of life’s mysteries, but it might. People climb Mount Everest “because it’s there” and the world’s impressed and the climber feels like they’ve accomplished something. But 1,400 people have done that. How many people have slogged through all 380,000 entries in the Cleveland White Pages?

I think everybody should read ANY really thick book from cover to cover. Personally, I’ve done Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, once. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read more of the big ones.

Some suggestions: 
 The Bible, Bhagavad-Gita, Koran, Being and Time, War and Peace, Finnegan’s Wake, any of the Chilton’s auto repair manuals (i.e. Toyota Camry 1997-2001), any large dictionary or encyclopaedia, patents filings, court records, a year’s worth of classified ads from an old newspaper…


3 responses to “The Bookshelf in My Mind

  1. Howdy Ted,

    Great interview! ‘m thinking of wading my way through ‘Moby Dick’ in that kind of page-at-a-time way, possibly a bit before bed each night. Have you ever attempted to harpOon that beast?

    Also, thoughts on John Irving?

    Plus, I still have your ‘Rock She Wrote’ book…will return it to y’all next time we’re in Tronna!


    • Thanks Amber!

      Yeah, I tried Moby Dick once, but my aversion to fiction stopped me from making it too far in. Also, certain classics seem to lose their punch due to ubiquitous pop culture references. For, example, I didn’t see Casablanca until I was in my thirties and I felt like I’d already seen it many times.

      I’ve read Garp, and started a few other Irving but never made it past the first 80 pages or so. He makes me laugh, and I like that he deals with gender stuff. But I find his other stuff feels less inspired than Garp. You?

      See you next time you’re in town!

  2. Just started following you on Twitter, I like your site and your passion for all things karaoke.

    I can’t believe you stopped believin’ in Raftery’s book (pun intended)! I think anyone who isn’t into karaoke could at least get a better understanding of why people enjoy it so much by reading his book.



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