Alex Ross Bookshelf


For the past thirty years or so, I’ve been working as a music critic, and I’ve written three books myself: The Rest Is NoiseListen to This, and the newly released Wagnerism. I’ve become accustomed to people asking me whether I find music exceptionally difficult to write about — the hard-to-source quotation “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” comes up a lot — and what models I use when I write. In truth, I don’t think writing about music is any *more* difficult than writing about any other form. Painting, poetry, dance, film all have dimensions that can never be put into words. Still, music does pose special challenges, because it seems to get under our skin in a peculiarly penetrating way. Part of what interested me so much about Wagnerism as a subject — the book is a survey of Wagner’s influence on art forms outside of music, from Baudelaire to Bugs Bunny — is that it’s all about artists struggling to come to terms with music and absorb it into their own work. Here, in any case, are some books that had a profound effect on me over the years. 

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music By Alex Ross Cover Image
Possibly out of print. Email or call to check availability and price.
ISBN: 9780374285937
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - September 15th, 2020

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (Vintage International) By Thomas Mann, John E. Woods (Translated by) Cover Image
By Thomas Mann, John E. Woods (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780375701160
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage - July 27th, 1999

I first read Doctor Faustus when I was eighteen, and it remains the most intense reading experience of my life —  a monumental, bone-chilling fictional biography of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, who appears to have sold his soul to the devil in return for esoteric mastery of his art. It is to some extent an allegory for how German culture went astray in the decades leading up to the Nazi period, but it's also a thrilling evocation of art’s power to mirror its time, in sometimes terrifying ways. Mann wrote it in Pacific Palisades, starting in 1943, and he was able to take advantage of the great community of émigrés who came to LA in those years, including the modernist revolutionaries Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. When the German government bought the Mann house a few years ago and restored it, I was able to stand in the study where this stupendous book was written — a great moment for me.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music By Nona Willis Aronowitz (Editor), Sasha Frere-Jones (Foreword by), Daphne Carr (Afterword by), Evie Nagy (Afterword by) Cover Image
By Nona Willis Aronowitz (Editor), Sasha Frere-Jones (Foreword by), Daphne Carr (Afterword by), Evie Nagy (Afterword by)
ISBN: 9780816672837
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Univ Of Minnesota Press - May 1st, 2011

A wide-ranging collection of the incisive, impassioned, posture-free pop-music criticism of Ellen Willis, who wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1975, setting a standard that none of us who followed her have matched.

The Song of the Lark (Vintage Classics) By Willa Cather Cover Image
ISBN: 9780375706455
Availability: Backordered
Published: Vintage - July 27th, 1999

The Song of the Lark is, in my mind, the other great music novel, after Doctor Faustus. It is the story of a Wagner singer who grows up on the Great Plains, absorbing influences from the landscape and melding impressions with her art. It is partly a tribute to the great turn-of-the-century soprano Olive Fremstad and partly a self-portrait of the author's own artistic emergence in Nebraska. Needless to say, this novel plays a large role in my book Wagnerism. I have an entire chapter devoted to Cather, who wrote about music with piercing perceptiveness.

The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work and His World By Barry Millington Cover Image
Possibly out of print. Email or call to check availability and price.
ISBN: 9780199933761
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - October 29th, 2012

Back to the ever-controversial, ever-fascinating Wagner: if I had to recommend a single book about him, it would be Barry Millington’s biography The Sorcerer of Bayreuth. It is richly illustrated, up-to-date in terms of scholarship, and far from worshipful in its treatment of the composer’s antisemitism. The title comes from an epithet that has been often attached to the composer over the years, and probably originated with Wagner’s acolyte-turned-nemesis Nietzsche, who wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra about an “old sorcerer” who hoodwinks everyone with his magic and illusions.