I have built my entire life around loving music, and I surround myself with it. I’m always racing to catch up on my next favorite song. But I never stop playing my mixes- Every fan makes them. The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with—nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life.Love is a Mix Tape (a book in which each chapter is named after and preceded by the tracklist of a mix tape) is a memoir about Rob Sheffield’s experience as a lifelong music fan and as a young widower. Sheffield’s wife, Renée, suddenly dies in front of him one Sunday morning when they were both relaxing at home. She was in her earlier thirties, and they had been married for five years. Using his many mix tapes to guide him, he writes about how they first met, about their short time together, and about how he coped with her passing.
Yes, Love is a Mix Tape is as heartbreaking as you're imagining. The suddenness and the circumstances of Renée’s passing make it something out of the most unimaginable and unbelievable nightmare—as evidenced by Sheffield’s reaction after it happened. He didn’t want to leave the house, so that he could be there to pick up the phone when she called saying there had been a mistake, and she was coming home. He didn't want to call their family or friends, because later he'd have to call them again and apologise for alarming them unnecessarily. All this after she had already been pronounced dead.
But the thing is, this book is not just sad. It’s also passionate, enthusiastic, full of life. Though Sheffield eventually does find a way to move on with his life, there is no faux-cheerful conclusion or anything of the sort. The passion and the excitement are there all along, mixed with the most acute grief. “Moving on” is actually entirely the wrong expression, as he does not want to leave his love or his memories of Renée behind. The grief, the loss, the joy of ever having had her in his life, become a part of his very love for music, which is in its turn a crucial part of who he is.
But none of that means that he can’t, after time, find room in his heart for other loves. If Love is a Mix Tape is hopeful, it’s exactly because the pain feels all too real. I don’t like to even imagine being in Rob Sheffield’s shoes – who does? – but it does seem to me that the only way to cope with this sort of loss would be to accept that no, it will not be okay. It will always hurt. Only, there is life beyond the pain.
As I was saying, there’s more than just grief in Love is a Mix Tape, so let me tell you about the music: the book is very 90’s in its cultural landscape. The 90’s were not my decade; the 00’s were. In the 90’s I was a child or a young teen who was only starting to discover music. But I did listen to the radio, and recorded songs from it, and I had an older brother who bought CDs and swapped tapes with his friends…So I do remember some of it very well. I remember the excitement around Nirvana, and I remember when Kurt died. And I’ve read enough about music online to have sort of absorbed other people’s memories of When Pavement Came Along.
Most of all, though, I have made countless mixed CDs, and I know very well what it’s like to have a particular sequence of songs bring you back to a certain moment in your life. Sheffield is great at exploring the close connection between memory and music, as well as the latter’s ability to… not heal us, because that probably sounds forced and trite, but to make us face our emotions, reclaim them, integrate them in our lives. This is a beautiful, funny, passionate and heartbreaking book.
I now get scared of forgetting anything about Renée, even the tiniest detail, even the bands on this tape I can’t stand—if she touched them, I want to hear her fingertips. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, trying to remember: what was Renée’s shoe size? What color were her eyes? What was her birthday, her grandparents’ first names, that Willie Nelson song we heard on the radio in Atlanta? The memory comes back, hours or days later. It always comes back. But in the moment, I panic. I’m positive it’s gone for good. I’m shaking from that sensation now, trying to remember some of this music. Nothing connects to the moment like music. I count on the music to bring me back—or, more precisely, to bring her forward.Reviewed at:
You lose a certain kind of innocence when you experience this type of kindness. You lose your right to be a jaded cynic. You can no longer go back through the looking glass and pretend not to know what you know about kindness. It’s a defeat, in a way. One afternoon, I sat by Tonsler Park in Charlottesville and watched a Little League game and remembered my own days as a right fielder in the tall grass. I thought, None of these kids knows yet how much a coffin costs. None of these kids knows anything about funeral bills or the word “decedent.” But there’s a lot I know I wouldn’t give up. People kept showing me unreasonable kindness, inexplicable kindness, indefensible kindness. People were kind when they knew nobody would ever notice, much less praise them for it. People were even kind when they knew I wouldn’t appreciate it.
Some nights I would drive up Route 29 to the all-night WalMart. I’d push a cart around with some paper towels inside to look like a real shopper, just to spy on married people. I just wanted to be near them, to listen to them argue. This one is $2.99! But this one is $1.49 for just one! But $2.99 is cheaper per roll! But $1.49 is cheaper than $2.99! But we can store the other one! We live in a house, not a spare-towel storage unit, and we’ll pay more than $1.49 rent for the space it takes to store it! But you can never have too much of it! And so on. Married people fight over some dumb shit when they think there aren’t any widowers eavesdropping. And they never think there are widowers eavesdropping.
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