Books·My Life in Books

2018 Juno Awards nominee Scott Helman on why he loved reading W. Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage

The singer-songwriter shares a book that influenced his life and career.

'The story is as tragic as it is beautiful.'

Singer-songwriter Scott Helman has two 2018 Juno nominations for Songwriter of the Year and Pop album of the year for his debut record Hȏtel de Ville. (Warner Music Canada/Modern Library)

The annual Juno Awards celebrates outstanding achievements in the Canadian record industry. The 2018 Juno Awards will air live from Vancouver on March 25, 2018 on CBC TelevisionCBC Radio and CBCMusic.ca.

CBC Books asked nominees to share their favourite books. Toronto-based singer-songwriter Scott Helman has two 2018 Juno nominations — songwriter of the year and pop album of the year for his debut record Hȏtel de Ville. One of his favourite books is the classic W. Somerset Maugham novel Of Human Bondage

"It was a daunting book that sat on my grocery list, and like kale, it was easy to skip over. The length was enough of a deterrent to begin with, not to mention the title wasn't particularly enticing. When people rave about things, I tend to put them off, since I narcissistically need to feel like it was my idea. But I couldn't hold it off forever, and one summer I picked the book up with a sigh and began reading.

"It would be an oversimplification, and a pandering of sorts, to claim I was grasped instantly by the story of our protagonist, our poor orphaned Philip. I can only describe the first 100 pages of the greatest book in the English language — I can hear my mom saying softly and hypocritically, 'You can't put a book down before page 100' — as a gentle urge, which leaves you inside the unfolding mind of Maugham.

"The story is as tragic as it is beautiful, and being autobiographical it's filled with hard truths. Maugham's life was hard, as the metaphorical clubbed foot of Phillip portrays (which some say was Maugham's expression of his taboo sexuality), and for those of us who are acquainted with the inherent painfulness of being alive, I would refer to Of Human Bondage as a kind of rulebook.

"I don't trust musicals in much the same way that I don't trust philosophers (typically old white cronies with enough wealth to sit and turn their biases into axioms). It seems the world's chaos cannot be dissolved by an outbreak of song in much the same way that it can't be burned into a 100 page essay. The pop singer knows that the universals we express have weight because of its individual accounts, and the anecdotes we covet. Of Human Bondage is not here to persuade, but more like a glass of wine (this is not an original thought, it is one of the quotes on the cover I always found both painfully pretentious and unarguably true) it serves to loosen you to it, so that you might see yourself in the world that is laid before you.

"If I could go back to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery where the sun forced its way through the Toronto clouds and warmed the grass, where the strange serenity of 1,000 endings surrounded me, and where the best ending of all, that Of Human Bondage, was coming to a close, I would give a baby toe.

"When I shut the book and had a good cry, I couldn't help but feel that all the art in the world serves to do what it did for me and what I have dedicated my life to attempt — which is to express, quietly or loudly, with words, melody, paint or glances, with care or impatience or sexuality or faith or insecurity or hate or love."

Scott Helman's comments have been edited and condensed.

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