Notes on My Pandemic Reading

Faced with lockdown, I decided to turn it into a personal quest

Since my teen years, my daily routine has focused on books and music. It sounds boring, I’m sure—but not to me. I embrace books and music the way other people practice yoga or Zen or transcendental mediation. I find endless joy and mind-expansion in my daily regimen. Under ideal circumstances, I will devote around two hours per day to music, and at least three hours per day to reading.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Some people tell me that doing this must require great discipline. But I like the double meaning in that word: discipline. It signifies both a carefully constructed plan of action—always best when self-imposed and not externally (by a pandemic, for example)—but also your chosen vocation or field of study. You practice your discipline, and perhaps even come to master it, or at least a small part of it. From that perspective, discipline—despite what you might have heard from Michel Foucault or Dr. Spock—isn’t such a bad thing.

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This kind of empowering discipline hasn’t always been possible in my life, but even under the most hectic situations, I’ve made drastic changes in my daily schedule in order to create room for it. When I started working with the Boston Consulting Group in September 1983, I constructed a daily routine where I went each morning from my apartment on Wellesley Street to Stanford University, and devoted an hour to reading and research before heading to the office (conveniently located on Sand Hill Road, about a mile away). After leaving the office, I typically went back to campus, and found an available piano—I knew where almost every instrument was located in the entire university—so I could play jazz. (I later got a piano in a different office on Sand Hill Road; but that’s a whole other story.) I would then eat dinner nearby, at some inexpensive place on El Camino Real, University Avenue, or California Avenue, but always bringing a book with me to read over the meal.

I didn’t own a television back then, and wouldn’t until I got married at age 33. So I also had time for listening to music and reading in the evening. It seems like a strange, narrow life—but my various day gigs back then (as I’ve described elsewhere) involved so much variety and excitement, that the quiet time with books and music felt liberating and centering by comparison. I don’t think I could have survived all the psychic and physical demands on me without this counterbalance.

At other junctures, I might have long commutes by car, or go on lengthy plane trips—and these were also carefully planned to maximize opportunities for practicing my discipline. For example, I have made at least 25 round trips from the United States to Australia over the years (none of them vacations, all of them work and project related), and each of those journeys involves almost a full day in the air. That can be dead time, or mindful time, and I always made sure it was the latter.

My life is much different now, and has been for many years, but the centering, meditative effect of books and music is still important to my daily equilibrium. So the pandemic wasn’t much of a change for me. In the context of my family, I am considered the recluse—unlike my older brother Dana, who always maintains a frequent calendar of public lectures, panel discussions, readings and other live events. The family joke is that Ted was practicing lockdown long before it was fashionable.

I laugh along with the joke, and it’s not much of an exaggeration. I don’t turn down all invitations to events, but I do say no to most of them. When I release a book, I feel I owe it to my publisher to make public appearances, so there will be a brief flurry of activity, but it just lasts a few weeks. And I definitely find it useful to meet new people and hear different views—especially on visits to college campuses, which I view as a kind of anthropological fieldwork to discover novel or unexpected practices. But a little of that goes a long way, and so I was quite comfortable settling into lockdown with my family for a year, and devoting time primarily to my music and reading.

More than half of my reading during the pandemic was focused on a single subject. I call it my quest project. As is often the case in my research, I started with a very large purview, one that gives me lots of freedom to explore different facets—and I’m quite willing to spend years on these ‘big picture’ topics, provided they are sufficiently open-ended and intriguing. This is how I came to write my books on Healing Songs and Works Songs. Those areas of inquiry cut across disciplines, geographies and time periods, and never felt constraining.

My quest project began with a similarly expansive approach. I wanted to study situations in which individuals throughout history have undertaken some quest—possibly dangerous but always outside the norm—with the explicit goal of transforming their lives.

I had a hunch that music might be involved in these situations. In fact, I already knew that it did from my studies of shamans and visionaries—narratives from all over the world make clear how much extraordinary experiences depend on songs. Sometimes the song actually creates the journey—that’s why the shaman’s drum is frequently called a horse. In other cases, notably in Native American vision quests (which are a kind of Weberian ideal type of these experiences), the participant often returns from an arduous experience with a special song.

The song is the reward for a successful quest. It usually possesses special properties.

As I looked over the books I’ve written, I began to notice how often these momentous journeys and events had influenced my writing, and shaped my philosophy of music—or perhaps worldview is a better description. That’s true whether I consider the Orpheus myth (so central to my Healing Songs research), or the tale of Robert Johnson at the crossroads (significant in my inquiries into the history of the blues), or my concern with port cities and waterways as sources of artistic innovation (in my most recent book Music). The story of a song is often the tale of a journey, and vice versa.

So my starting hypothesis, at the beginning of the pandemic, was that a kind of alternative musicology exists, not taught at Julliard or Berklee, and linked to situations of transformative change in human life. These decisive interludes often involve trips—sometimes real, sometime imaginary, sometimes a little of both.

As I came to discover, this radical musicology has existed everywhere in the world, preserved in ritual and text, and guiding individuals through moments of crisis and change. It survives in manuscripts, songs, inscriptions, and other documentary evidence from the past, although sometimes in coded or metaphorical language. And it informs every ancient discipline of wisdom—whether philosophy, legal institutions, medical studies, mythology, poetic expression, or spiritual practice. The only peculiarity is how rarely it is noticed or discussed, especially within the field of music (ironically so, since song is the engine room that empowers these transformative situations).

I won’t go into all the details of what I learned here—that will be the focus of my next book (tentatively entitled How to Bring a Soul Back from the Dead with Music). Here I’m simply describing my pandemic reading, and how it gave me freedom to explore one of the richest and deepest fields of inquiry in my vocation: namely, how visionary individuals have embarked on life-changing quests, and how this involves music in strange and surprising ways.

Over the months of lockdown, I gradually became more focused in my reading, but I started out with few limits or constraints in my approach. At the beginning, I was as likely to read poetry (Sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke) or epics (Sundiata, The Epic of Kelefaa Saane) or novels (The Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan) as non-fiction. The only requirement was that some kind of quest or transformative journey must take place in the narrative. As always, this openness led me to masterworks I wouldn’t have read otherwise (for example Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game or Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis).

I already knew that the quest was a defining theme of great works of literature. But it wasn’t until I explicitly focused on it that I realized how central this formula is to our most essential concepts of storytelling and narrative structure. (For example, the recent link I shared on “how to write a novel in three days” is explicitly driven by the quest recipe—which now makes perfect sense to me.) I soon found I needed to take a detour into literary criticism, to understand why the quest looms so large in our cultural history. The two best works on this subject were, I eventually concluded, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, but in fact all literary theorizing has to come to grips with the concept of the quest.

By extension, so does music history—because all of the great literary genres (epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy) originated as musical performances, and the quest narrative is embedded into their very structure. The more I dug into these convergences, the greater confidence I had that I was approaching some central and constitutive essence at the heart of human music-making. Songs have transformative powers, and quest-like situations provide us with rare opportunities to exercise them.

But fiction and poems could only take me so far. I also needed to understand the academic literature. At this juncture, my studies began to coalesce around several key subjects. The first related to the ancient concept of the quest, and this involved me in extraordinarily dense readings in Parmenides, Empedocles, and other ancient thinkers who seemed to have undergone music-related moments of crisis in their own lives. Posterity treats these individuals as philosophers, but in fact they were also musicians and helped to define an alternative musicology that is now almost completely forgotten. (The best guides to this subject, beyond the primary texts, are classicists F.M. Cornford, Peter Kingsley and, to a lesser extent, E.R. Dodds.)

I encountered the same thing in non-Western ancient texts, and I eventually found myself reading works I never thought I would have the slightest reason to study—for example the Chaldean Oracles, or the Hymns of Zoroaster, or various so-called “magical papyri” discovered in Egypt, starting back in the 19th century. Once again, these aren’t usually treated as musicology texts, but given the framework I was now developing, they had important things to tell me about songs as a source of guidance for individuals facing moments of crisis and opportunity. Even fringe Western texts, such as the Derveni papyrus or various works of Neo-Platonic theurgy now started to seem far more multilayered to me than I previously realized. There was a whole system of musical thinking that I never before considered, and it also existed in Western culture long before Europe even had a name.

A second area of inquiry involved me in deep study of the Native American tradition. This has been a major source of inspiration for my music writing for almost thirty years now—and every time I return to it, the tradition seems richer and more relevant. As I mentioned above, this is the single most important area of inquiry into what I call the quest—and involves the interconnection of myth, music, ritual, and belief systems. During the pandemic, I moved beyond primary texts, most of which I had already read, and began reviewing the scholarly research—which, frankly, disappointed me greatly. Many of the “experts” who have studied the Native American vision quest have pursued overly reductive approaches, and considered these practices as fodder for their psychoanalytic or sociological theories.  

Imagine if music had life-changing properties—but the very texts that tell about it were never assigned in music classes. Those were the books I wanted to read during my lockdown.”

So I don’t have much good to say about Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian by George Devereux, or The Dream in Primitive Cultures by Jackson Steward Lincoln, or Religion: An Anthropological View by Anthony Wallace, and other such works. But there were a few enlightening books of scholarship that helped me enormously—especially The Dream Seekers by Lee Irwin and Out of this World by I. P. Couliano.

For those who care about this subject—and people should care, if either music or personal transformation is important to them—I’d advise them to focus on first-person narratives from both Native American culture and other societies which celebrate vision-driven worldviews. Some of these books are well-known (Black Elk Speaks or Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions) while others less so (I, the Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood, Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich), but they share an immersive approach that comes across as alive and vibrant on the printed page. I also found myself returning again and again, during lockdown, to the books of Frances Densmore (1867-1957), one of my favorite ethnomusicologists, and a researcher who dealt with these practices respectfully on their own terms, and not with the goal of proving some pet theory or adapting reality to academic groupthink.

I need to admit, again, that much of my reading during this period involved me pursuing dead ends. For example, I felt that a study of the vision quest required me to read the works of Carlos Castaneda, whose bestselling books on the Yaqui shaman Don Juan are perhaps the best-known modern explorations of the subject. I devoted a lengthy period to reading his books, and to scholarly literature about them—but I eventually abandoned this whole line of research. (The turning point was reading Amy Wallace’s Sorcerer's Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda—after that it was hard to know what I could trust or believe in these famous books.) I say all this not as a critique of Castaneda, which would required a lengthy essay, but to stress both my willingness to study unconventional works (in this instance, half-baked New Age literature ignored by most serious scholars) if I thought they could expand my knowledge, but my equal readiness to discard them if I found them wanting.

By comparison, another crossover writer had a more positive impact on my project. Any scholarly inquiry into narratives about dangerous journeys and personal change inevitably brings us into contact with the work of Joseph Campbell. His studies of myth had an extraordinary impact on popular culture, influencing everything from Hollywood movie plots (most notably, Star Wars) to self-help manuals. So he also figured on my pandemic reading list, and though I have some disagreements with Campbell—who rarely addresses issues of responsibility and moral choice in his accounts of the quest, which is an unsettling omission—I came to respect his knowledge and learn from his insights.

A third topic, that began to dominate my reading in the later stages of the pandemic, was the Arthurian legend and narratives of the Holy Grail. In many ways, this is the defining quest tale in Western culture, and represents the linchpin connecting spiritual and ritualistic practices with populist entertainment. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that Hollywood studios and other entertainment businesses (video games, graphic novels, TV shows such as Game of Thrones) still operate from the playbook established by the Grail quest narratives, most notably Le Morte d'Arthur from 1485. Yet this same tradition is more than just a matter of adventure tales and escapist entertainment—it embodies some of the deepest wisdom literature in our cultural inheritance.

I read so much on this one subject that I sometimes felt as if were undertaking a PhD on Arthurian legends. Once again, this is not a discipline that is generally considered part of the training of a musicologist. In fact, I’ve never met a music professor who ever expressed the slightest interest in the Holy Grail. But, of course, that’s also true of Empedocles or Parmenides or the ancient magical papyri. But once you grasp that music is embedded in every great quest tradition, you start viewing the Grail story and other aspects of the Arthurian tradition in very different ways. 

After all, imagine if music had life-changing properties—but the very texts that tell about it were never assigned in music classes. Those were the books I wanted to read during my lockdown. And what I learned about the Grail quest, defined broadly, mirrored what I had already learned from Native American or shamanistic or pre-Socratic literature. And that’s the best part of the kind of research I do. It starts expansively, but follows the lines of convergence—and ends up with a deeper, more specialized kind of knowledge. Yet this is learning that never loses its wider applicability.

Okay, there were other things I read during lockdown that didn’t involve dangerous quests—but these were for pure enjoyment. I returned to my favorite authors, and tracked down books from them I hadn’t read before. Some of my best discoveries came from lesser-known works by illustrious writers. For example, I only read Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark and Despair because I had already devoured his more famous books—and was pleased to learn that these works, originally written in Russian but translated by the author himself into English, rank among his finest achievements.

I made the same pleasant discovery while reading Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, which I came to with low expectations. After all, Waugh is a comic novelist, so who would care about his dense three-volume fictional treatment of World War II? But I’ve now decided that Sword of Honour is one of the best works ever published about war, and—even more to my surprise—I discovered that I prefer Waugh the serious novelist to Waugh the comic writer.

But I didn’t give up comedy entirely. Heaven knows, it was needed during a pandemic. For that I found myself enjoying P.G. Wodehouse—an inexhaustible source of delight. And my other favorite lockdown novelists were Sigrid Undset and Janet Lewis—both of whom I may write about at a future date.

These reading projects helped me get through a long, dark year in reasonably upbeat spirits. Yet even I got restless after a while, and was ready to celebrate after I was vaccinated and allowed to return to a less constrained routine. Maybe I’m not quite so much of a recluse as I thought. That said, my normal schedule might very well look like lockdown to most people. But I probably had as many mind-expanding and consciousness-raising experiences during that long period of confinement as I ever had in more normal times.