Ten great reads for music fans on the Internet Archive of free books

Jade doubles down on Patti Smith
If you don't have hard copies like Jade, you can read some of Patti Smith's acclaimed reading online. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Internet Archive has made its online library of 1.4 million books available for free access "to serve the nation's displaced learners." Whether you're one of those displaced learners or just a music fan looking for a great read, here are ten books to jump into.

Click on the title of each book to see the Internet Archive listing. While the Internet Archive is a convenient and invaluable resource that will be available for unlimited online "borrowing" though at least June 30, please also remember that this is a challenging time for booksellers, publishers, and authors. If you are able, consider purchasing books via mail, download, curbside pickup, or in another manner that's safe during this public health crisis.

Patti Smith, Just Kids

Patti Smith's moving memoir won our recent poll of all-time most essential music reads. With an urgent poignance, the book focuses on Smith's complex relationship with renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The book, which Smith said she wrote to fulfill a promise made to Mapplethorpe on his deathbed, won the National Book Award.

Keith Richards, Life

The New York Times calls the Rolling Stones guitarist's memoir "a high-def, high-velocity portrait of the era when rock 'n' roll came of age, a raw report from deep inside the counterculture maelstrom of how that music swept like a tsunami over Britain and the United States."

Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life

When Michael Azerrad's 2001 book came out, fans of bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. were waiting with bated breath for someone to give their favorite groups the book treatment. While the book necessarily fell short of the kind of detail provided by later titles focusing on individual bands, it made up for it with its timeliness and the fluency with which Azerrad connected the dots across varying scenes and artists. The book, he said, was inspired by a music documentary that skipped straight from Talking Heads to Nirvana. The '80s DIY era would rarely get such scant treatment again.

Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A.

The very latest edition of this definitive tome isn't on the Internet Archive, but quite a bit of country music history took place prior to 2002, the date of the most recent edition available to access there.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One

Many of the most powerful music memoirs have been the most idiosyncratic, and Bob Dylan's 2004 book is a classic example. He writes about three different points in his career, not explaining why or even pointing out that the wife he refers to at one point is a different one than the wife he refers to at another. As with his music, though, Dylan's results were as stunning as his method was inscrutable. 16 years later, we're still waiting for Volume Two...although maybe, given the Traveling Wilburys' discography, he'll just go straight to Volume Three.

Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

How essential is this hip-hop history? The Current's Sean McPherson, co-host of The Message, keeps a very well-worn copy of this book handy on his desk.

Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

There's something about punk that's endlessly fascinating: how did a bunch of lo-fi upstarts push back against baroque album rock and commercial gloss to bring a new urgency, and a renewed political spark, to popular music? In their 1996 Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain captured the substance and spirit of the movement in a book that the New York Times called "lurid, insolent, disorderly, funny, sometimes gross, sometimes mean and occasionally touching."

Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love

Technically this is two books, but you wouldn't want to read one without the other. In his magisterial biography, Peter Guralnick chronicles one of the greatest, and most tragic, epics in the history of American popular culture: the rise and fall of Elvis Presley.

Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, edited by Thomas Brothers

Louis Armstrong's life and legacy is at the heart of American music, and there's no more compelling chronicler of that story than the brilliant artist himself.

Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

Nick Hornby's 1995 novel is about a fictional record shop owner, but untold thousands of readers have seen themselves in Rob Fleming — if not in his relationships with several former partners, in the way he soundtracks them with mixtapes carefully curated from his vast music collection. The 2000 film adaptation, an iconic vehicle for John Cusack and Lisa Bonet as well as a breakout movie for Jack Black, cemented the status of High Fidelity as a timeless classic, and the book is now the basis for a Hulu original series starring Bonet's daughter Zoë Kravitz.


Sign up for The Current Rock and Roll Book Club e-mail newsletter

A monthly update with a note from Jay, a roundup of recent reviews, previews of upcoming books, and more.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.


comments powered by Disqus