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Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels is photographed in Toronto, Ontario, Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (Kevin Van Paasse for The Globe and Mai)
Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels is photographed in Toronto, Ontario, Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (Kevin Van Paasse for The Globe and Mai)

Three songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week Add to ...

The Monotones - Book of Love

In 1958, The Monotones released a song about the Book of Love. Inspired by a toothpaste jingle, it’s a doo-wop number that moves so fast it seems to be sprinting – especially at the chorus. If the group’s six singers have indeed read the Book, I suspect they skimmed it. Chapter one is allegedly about confessing love; chapter two concerns commitment; chapter three, enigmatically, teaches you “the true meaning of romance.” The Monotones’ description of the final chapter leaves me skeptical about the whole publication: “In chapter four,” they sing, “you break up / but you give her just one more chance.” Most perplexingly, the Monotones’ central lyric concerns the authorship of the Book of Love. “Who wrote [it]?” they ask and ask, as if they’re trying to compile a bibliography; as if the author’s CV could tell them, once and for all, whether love’s a mug’s game.

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Magnetic Fields - Book of Love

In 1999, Magnetic Fields released a song about the Book of Love. It’s the cleverest, prettiest song that has been written on the topic, a song whose lyrics fit together like lovers’ locking eyes. I get the impression that Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt must have picked up a different edition of the Book than did the Monotones’ six-part harmonizers. As Merritt describes it, the tome offers little value as a relationship manual. Instead it’s full of flowers, “facts and figures,” instructions for dancing, and “things we’re all too young to know.” “The book of love has music in it,” he explains. “In fact that’s where music comes from / Some of it is just transcendental / Some of it is just really dumb.”

Droll and sentimental at the same time, keenly felt, the Fields’ Book of Love has understandably become a wedding-day standard. It is arguably one of indie rock’s most important contributions to the American songbook. But be careful who you play it for. It’s not easy to take back.

Frederick Squire - Book of Love

In 2016, the Sudbury-based songwriter Frederick Squire released a song about the Book of Love. Yet he never gets around to describing the thing. He doesn’t devote lyrics on the amorous manuscript’s table of contents; he doesn’t sing comely rhymes about roses or rings. Mostly Squire’s song is about how he reads the Book of Love and then forgets what he read. Time after time, Squire explains, he has had to return to the book’s dog-eared pages. Time after time, he has screwed up the follow-through. “I make mistakes sometimes / I often don’t get it right.” The Book of Love is evidently missing a chapter on best intentions, but I hope Squire’s lover will give him some credit: as the musician keeps singing, loudly, over rising organ, his devotion seems clearer than the Monotones’ or even Merritt’s, as clear as an inscription on an inner page.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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