I had been eagerly awaiting the release of this book. I am a man who has no resistance to enthusiasm–I prefer it, in fact, to appearing cool, by a long shot–and a serious, 35-year record-collecting habit that’s led to an 8,000-unit collection tentacling through my domicile. My only 78s are a little Ernest Tubb “book” from the early ’50s, but the collectors chronicled here have long been heroes of mine, having made it possible for me to hear Jim Jackson’s “Old Dog Blue,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and countless other heart- and mind-piercing classics from before Hitler permanently darkened the world. In fact, my only worry about reading the book was that I’d go on auto-pilot, since I’d already read much by and about Harry Smith, Joe Bussard, John Fahey, and R. Crumb (who’s not profiled here, for good reason). That mild anxiety, joined with my tendency to self-start, my voracious and ominivorous regular reading habits, and my almost-hysterical imagination of the contents of a future book about which I’ve become interested–well, I was prepared to be disappointed. Ms. Petrusich, however, did a wonderful job on a difficult task. The proof of the pudding is I devoured it in two days, and I’m a busy guy.
As a bow to her chapter on the links between gender (and disabilities such as OCPD, Asperger’s and autism) and record collecting, being a man, I will present you a list of 10 reasons why you should read Amanda’s book:
1. She is very fair to a parade of (mostly) weird, old white guys who would alienate most people–even the mysterious and not particularly hygienic Don Wahle. As alienated as many of these collectors are, she imparts them with dignity.
2. She learns to scuba dive, braves foggy, twisty Appalachian roads, fends off lecherous truckers, suffers stomach viruses, seldom gets to draw on sisterly support, has to endure a thirty-year-old hipster with a bowler hat and pocket watch, and sits still under the imperious gaze of every collector who demands total silence while a record’s being played–just to bring us this book.
3. She very deftly blends thorough research, probing interviewing skill, bemused humor, both aesthetic and psychological analysis, skepticism, deep curiosity, and the time-honored quest narrative.
4. She will send you hurrying back to your own collection (or to your purchasing wish list) with her descriptions of piquant songs–and you will be surprised and enlightened, no matter how well-versed you are. For me, it was to learn the history of “Skokiaan,” a song I love in its current interpretation by The Pope of NOLA Kermit Ruffins, but didn’t know the history of. An iron law of music books: it must lighten your wallet and enrich your aural store.
5. This is a subject that could easily have been presented with great (and fatal) sobriety and convolution. Ms. Petrusich succeeds in navigating it with delight and clarity–the delight especially rubs off.
6. She can write a great chapter heading (and subtitle), then justify it.
7. She’s from Brooklyn, and you never feel hipped out to the margins.
8. These days, it seems like every non-fiction writer is required to incorporate brain research into her text, but, by the time Petrusich reaches that chapter, you feel it’s…necessary. In fact, you will probably have developed your own theories, which she will make it fun for you to test.
9. She is moved to buy 78s herself.
10. Regarding the matter of what makes a performance great, after a little wrestling, she seems to side with Dionysus as opposed to Apollo. This appears to be because, according to the research, she’s a woman, but Joe Bussard and I stand here to cry that you can make research say whatever you like. It won’t trump the joy that roars from ear to heart to extremities.