Songs about books for your literary summer playlist

Mica Murphy/Penguin

Like us, even rock stars, rappers and pop stars like to curl up with a book – the difference is that when they do it, sometimes we get a choon out of it.

Here are 15 of their literary best, as chosen by the Penguin.co.uk team.

‘Oxford Comma’ by Vampire Weekend

“Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?” is not quite “God save the queen / The fascist regime”, but for book nerds (we see you!), the opening lyric to Vampire Weekend’s 2008 single carried something of an illicit thrill. It refers, of course, to the principle of placing of a comma before the conjunction at the end of a list, which depending on where and when you were educated may be a subject that gets you hot under the collar. Good tune, too.

‘Shakespeare’ by Akala

Among his other literary achievements ­­– including writing Natives, a best-selling book on race – Akala set up the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company in 2009, a musical theatre group that highlights the linguistic similarities between rap lyrics and Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a thrilling show, as is the 2006 single which laid the groundwork for his mission to bring Shakespeare alive for new generations. “I’m similar to William, but a little different / do it for kids that’s illiterate, not Elizabeth” he raps, a diss we’d love to have seen the bard reply to. 

‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits

Literature’s most famous star-crossed lovers have inspired many a love song over the years, including that by British rock band Dire Straits. Their 1981 single is bleak, but nowhere near as tragic as Shakespeare’s play, in which both protagonists, following a series of misunderstandings, die. Instead, the Romeo and Juliet of the Dire Straits song are former lovers, who seemingly broke up because the time wasn’t right for them. The lyrics include a mention of one of the Shakespearean play’s most famous scenes, when Romeo appears below Juliet’s window. (He's underneath the window; she's singing, “Hey, la, my boyfriend’s back / You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that / Anyway, what you gonna do about it?”) And, like the play, the song sets out that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship was never going to have a happy ending: “Juliet, the dice was loaded from the start”. 

‘1984’ by David Bowie

Most of David Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs began as songs for his planned theatrical version of George Orwell’s iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – until the author’s estate denied the rights. The most obvious remaining evidence is the eponymous track, an indulgent, disco-noir thriller complete with lyrics about how Big Brother will “split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air”. No, it doesn’t have quite the same political bite of the novel, but then, George Orwell couldn’t play wah-wah guitar, so we’re calling it a draw.

‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush

Not every song needs to be an upbeat bop; any well-rounded summer playlist also needs something you can wail along to, loudly. Inspired, obviously, by the tale of (super angsty and high-maintenance) lovers Heathcliff and Cathy from the Emily Brontë novel of the same name, Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is that song. Told from the point of view of Cathy, the song references the worst qualities she and Heathcliff display in the novel, and that arguably is a major factor in their doomed love story (“You had a temper like my jealousy”). Its lyrics evoke the bleakness of the Yorkshire Moors – the setting of Brontë’s novel – and the fact that (spoiler alert) Cathy’s ghost spends the afterlife searching for Heathcliff: “Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy / I’ve come home, I’m so cold / Let me in through your window”, she sings. There’s no better time to listen to this absolute tune than when you’re cocooned in the heat of a summer’s day.

‘Inflammatory Writ’ by Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom might be associated with epic songs, often cooed over a harp, but only her fans know the extent of the layers of reference hidden beneath the wordplay. ‘Inflammatory Writ’, from her pugnacious debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, is an early example. Ostensibly about writer’s block, Newsom manages to fold in a reference to not only the concept of the Great American Novel, but the 1868 essay by John William DeForest, in which it was first described.

‘Table of Contents’ by The Roots

Frustrated by the lack of respect and appreciation for their art, The Roots got straight to the point on their 1999 album, Things Fall Apart, titled after Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s famous novel of the same name. In the introductory title track, a narrator intones that hip-hop records “are not maximised as product, even – not to mention as art”; then, in the next, they start unveiling where the album is going by demonstrating not just their lyrical abilities, but the band’s jazz bona fides and beat-switching instrumental acumen. The song’s title? ‘Table of Contents’, obviously.

‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane

The god-fearing Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would probably be fairly horrified to learn that his pipe-smoking caterpillars and magic mushrooms were, almost exactly a century later, celebrated in what is commonly understood to be an ode to hallucinogens. Grace Slick’s mesmerising song advises listeners to “Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall”, before demanding: “Feed your head.” Slick, who wrote and sang it, maintains that it was always about the hypocrisy of those parents reading Carroll’s trippy story to their children in the first place. 

'Love Story' by Taylor Swift

We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet: they meet at a ball and fall in love. They’re forbidden to marry and want to run away together. Where Shakespeare’s play ends with two dead teenagers, Swift’s song takes that tragic scene, filters it through a catchy melody and rhymes and – just as Juliet’s faith is fading, when she doesn’t know what to think – hits a key change to signify a tonal shift to an alternative, happy ending.

‘Superheroes’ by Stormzy

Grime artist Stormzy and children's author Jacqueline Wilson might just be the dream collaboration we never knew we needed. When his latest album, Heavy Is the Head, dropped back in December last year, fans quickly realised the London-born musician had paid tribute to Wilson's feisty, young heroine, Tracy Beaker, sampling Keisha White’s ‘Someday’ (the theme tune of the TV adaptation) in album track ‘Superheroes’. Wilson herself took to Twitter to express her delight, prompting a Twitter conversation between the two that was exactly the kind of pure, life-affirming content we love to see.

‘Paperback Writer’ by The Beatles

This song is about a writer desperately – and a bit pathetically – trying to get his 1,000-word novel published: “Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?/It took me years to write, will you take a look?” But it’s also a veiled tribute to Edward Lear, a Victorian poet and painter famed for his nonsense poetry. As McCartney, who wrote the song, sings: “It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear/And I need a job/So I wanna be a paperback writer.” This could, in fact, have been an in-joke, even a dig at Lennon, whose own writing at the time had been compared to Lear’s. True or not, the song, it must be said, was certainly catchier than Lennon’s semi-sensical prose.

‘Annabel Lee’ by Stevie Nicks

Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Nicks wore head-to-toe black in the 70s, when nobody else dared to. So it’s fitting that she should be inspired by poetry’s chief goth, Edgar Allan Poe, and his most mawkish of poems, dedicated to a woman so beautiful the narrator’s love permeates heaven, inspiring envy in even some embittered, lovelorn angels. For Nicks, the song had been a long time coming: she wrote it when she was 17 – and released it aged 63.

'Thieves in the Night' by Black Star

‘Thieves in the Night’ is an anti-oppressive extrapolation of Toni Morrison’s tragic portrayal of the harm of internalised racism, The Bluest Eye. In it, Mos Def and Talib Kweli –aka Black Star – turn Morrison’s lines, “We were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good but well-behaved” into the call-and-response, “Not strong, only aggressive/Not free, we only licensed/Not compassionate, only polite/Not good but well-behaved/Chasin’ after death so we could call ourselves brave, still livin’ like mental slaves/Hiding like thieves in the night from life.” The powerful lyrics are underpinned by a beat so breezy it still fits into any summer playlist.

‘Wrapped Up in Books’ by Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian were always a band for the shy, nerdy and bookish, but on 2013’s ‘Wrapped Up in Books’, they finally addressed the subject explicitly. The song is a sprightly, tuneful story of two lovers that spend their lives pining for things they’re too shy to communicate – except through writing. “Our aspirations”, goes the chorus, “are wrapped up in books / Our inclinations are hidden in looks.” It’s a bright little ditty that leaps off the page.

‘Willie Burke Sherwood’ by Killer Mike

Killer Mike’s tribute to his grandfather who helped raise him is also the story of a kid whose interest in books had to be obscured in order to assert himself to survive on the streets of Atlanta: “Gotta tell the truth, yeah, the block wasn’t me / lookin’ for adventure, but the block was not”, he raps in the first verse of ‘Willie Burke Sherwood’. Accordingly, the young Mike, “addicted to literature”, moulds himself after Jack from Lord of the Flies to avoid the fate of the novel’s more introspective children: “Ain’t no room for the civilised / When the wild men rumble in the jungle / And that’s why Simon and Piggy died.” This is bookish rap at its emotive, hard-hitting best.

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