To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year here. Here is what I read in January:
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow:As you may know, I loved the musical inspired by this biography of the Founding Father of the United States and the country’s first Treasury Secretary. Alexander Hamilton emerged from squalor in the Caribbean to become a Revolutionary War hero, a supreme law scholar and a history-changing public officer. In reading this huge book I now understand that Hamilton was a colorful and incredible human being who did so much to get the American government on its feet, and he certainly does not get the recognition today that he deserves. I loved that Chernow also gave part of the narrative to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, who was responsible for preserving her husband’s legacy and just the ultimate badass. Hamilton, most definitely, did not throw away his shot.
I don’t remember where I read this, but someone on the Internet said that what makes a biography exceptional is that it gives the audience a portrait of a person in a broader cultural context, helping us to think about the world we live in today and make new observations. While I expected to love it, I did not expect that I would sympathize with Hamilton so much and that I would mine so much insight about my own life from it. I highly recommend this biography to anyone. Chernow does a great job of explaining all of the history and what was happening, far better than what a textbook will tell you.
On The Road, by Jack Kerouac: I never had to read this novel for a literature class, so I decided to see what it was all about. Drawing from personal experiences, Kerouac wrote a story about the 1950s-era travels of him and his friends across the country and thinly disguised it as fiction. A lot of things happen in the novel that in 2016 seems unfathomable, mostly because the world we live in today has too many people and too much bureaucracy. Thinking about the country pre-freeways is hard to do. But part of the beauty of reading this novel now is that it presents some of the same crises about identity and purpose we still deal with today through culture. I can see why so many people thought it was disjointed or subversive when the novel was first published, because the world Kerouac creates in the novel seems to exist parallel to reality.
In thinking about the book now as I’m writing my thoughts, I’m easily able to pull apart all of its aspects and come up with an answer for why it’s worth reading. While I was reading it, however, I was really underwhelmed and constantly wondering when this a-ha moment of why it’s the hallmark of the Beat Generation was going to come to me. If you decide to read this and feel sluggish at any point, know that the a-ha moment happens after you read it.
Do you have recommendations for me? Leave them in the comments below.
1. On Sunday at 11:30 p.m. I got a New York Times notification that David Bowie had died, which left me feeling empty as I tried to sleep and gutted at the beginning of the week. I remember the very first time and the very first Bowie song I listened to (“Suffragette City” on my iPod nano in ninth grade, from a two-disc best hits CD), and listening to his music has indelibly shaped the person I am today. No one will ever be like Bowie. In reading articles about his legacy, I found that this seems to be the case for a lot of people. I loved this article about bringing your kids up Bowie, his New Yorker obituary and this one about discovering his music when you’re a teenager.
If you haven’t heard of the broadway musical “Hamilton,” I’m sorry — I’m about to ruin your life in the best way.
I don’t even remember where or when I first heard about this musical, but I was curious from the very beginning. Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote and composed the play, which is based on a 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Miranda was inspired to write a musical based on Hamilton’s life while on vacation from his play “In the Heights,” and stars as Hamilton himself. The exceptional aspects of this musical, however, are that it is interpreted through a hip hop lens and that most of the actors are people of color. This video is a great introduction to the backstory and premise of the play.
One day I decided to listen to the soundtrack while I worked, and within the first few songs I was hooked. I’ve been watching videos from #Ham4Ham (this is the best one), following Miranda on Twitter and devouring any and all news about the play. I’m not the only one who finds this musical enjoyable. The soundtrack has been in the Top 5 on the rap charts and is racking up millions of streaming sessions. Tickets are notoriously hard to get and expensive, and the show has already made tens of millions of dollars in sales.
Just because you probably haven’t seen the play doesn’t mean that you can’t listen to and enjoy the soundtrack. If you have basic knowledge of Hamilton’s life, you’ll understand the play via its music. Miranda told Charlie Rose that the music from Broadway musicals were a significant part of his childhood in New York. His parents didn’t have money to go to the plays, and instead they bought cast albums. It was important to him that people could listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack and still understand the story, all while forming their own interpretations of Hamilton and his place in United States history. Genius is also a great resource for listening, as Miranda has made his own comments.
I don’t want to spoil anything for you as you uncover the brilliance that is “Hamilton,” but listening to Miranda discuss his artistic process or reading interviews where he talks about Hamilton as a person are magical experiences. The emotion just pours out of the music and the actors’ singing. The lyrics are fantastic and smart even out of context of the soundtrack, and it will put all of your favorite rappers’ songs to shame. I’ve wept while listening to a few select songs, and I’m emotional now just writing this / listening to my favorite one. I can only imagine what it’s like to see the performers live. This is what all musical theater should strive to be like, and I think it has set the benchmark for creativity and engagement. Miranda is a genius.
You can listen to the entire album on Spotify. The best tracks are “Alexander Hamilton,” “My Shot” (not going to lie, this is my anthem), “The Schuyler Sisters,” “You’ll Be Back,” “Satisfied,” “Wait For It,” “The Room Where It Happens” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Even if you’ve never seen a musical or don’t like them, give “Hamilton” a try. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
What do you think about the soundtrack? What are your favorite songs? Let’s talk about it in the comments.