Books·My Life in Books

7 books that musician Scott Helman loved reading

The singer-songwriter is championing Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee on Canada Reads 2021.
Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee. (Submitted by Scott Helman)

Scott Helman is a four-time Juno Award nominated singer-songwriter. The Toronto-born artist's hit singles include Everything Sucks and Ripple Effect. His latest album, Nonsuch Park (sa), was released in 2020.  

He is championing Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee on Canada Reads 2021.

Canada Reads will take place March 8-11. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Helman told CBC Books that reading is a true pleasure and that books have traditionally offered him a place to find himself and find beauty in.

"I fell in love with writing and words and storytelling before I fell in love with music. This is why, when I found music, I was so primed for songwriting," said Helman. "A piece of music will show you how someone else hears the world. Visual art will show you how someone else sees the world. But a book shows you how another person thinks. And that is crazy to me."

Here are the seven books that Helman loved reading.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer. (Signet, Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"This is my all-time favourite book. Although it might sound a little bit more nefarious than it is, it's a beautiful book about a young boy. It's sort of semi-autobiographical. It was written in 1915. It's about this boy with a cleft palate who finds his way through life and falls in love with this androgynous woman and figures out how to be alive. 

This is my all-time favourite book.

"The book is about the brutality of existence, mixed with the beauty of the small victories. It's just a very real book. And it's one of those books that, if you read the description, it wouldn't compel you. But if you read one sentence, you would be upset. I just love that book."

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a collection of essays from poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. (Andrew Cenci/Two Dollar Radio)

"He's amazing. He's the only writer I follow on Twitter. I think he's the coolest dude and he's super insightful. This book is great. If you're into pop culture, if you're into music, if you're into sports, this book is a spectacular dissection of those parts of our culture. It's framed with a particularly Black lens and understanding of what it means to be a 'minority.'

It really shaped the way that I understood Black culture, pop culture and pop culture in relation to race.

"It shaped the way that I understood Black culture, pop culture and pop culture in relation to race. I think that's a really tough conversation.

"As a white person who makes pop music, a good friend of mine told me to read this book — and I'm glad I did."

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Thomas King won the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize for The Inconvenient Indian. (Hartley Goodweather/Doubleday Canada)

"As a kid growing up in Canada, I feel lucky that I grew up in a time when reconciliation was starting to become a more mainstream idea, especially in the education system. I feel like I was opened up to a lot of Indigenous art and writing. But, we still didn't get the proper history of what the Indigenous people in this country have been through. 

It puts into perspective how the rolling train of capitalism just completely ignored the needs of the people that were here before the colonists came.

"This book shaped the way that I understand that issue. It puts into perspective how the rolling train of capitalism completely ignored the needs of the people that were here before the colonists came."

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer 

Jonathan Safran Foer is an American novelist. (Jeff Mermelstein, Mariner Books)

"This book pick is dedicated to my high school English literature teacher, who was the beam of light in my high school years. This novel tells the story of a young man who goes on a trip to Ukraine to learn about his family. 

"I don't want to give too much away because a lot is revealed in the book, which is part of why it's called Everything Is Illuminated. But it is very much about being Jewish, which I am as well. It takes this incredible, arty, weird lens at the shtetl life of the Jew in Ukraine — at a time when it wasn't fun to be a Jew in Ukraine. 

This book pick is dedicated to my high school English literature teacher, who was the beam of light in my high school years.

"It's a really, really special book. It's also hilarious. It was also a movie, if you want to watch it. I love this book. I loved every moment of it. And that teacher changed my life."

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is an American writer best known for her genre-busting work. (Tom Atwood/Wave Books)

"It's about the colour blue and it's written in this poetic, lyrical autotheory style. It's not really a story per se. A friend of mine gave me this book. I remember reading it in three days. The last day I was reading it, I was on the plane to Montreal and I was bawling. As the plane was landing, I couldn't stop reading. I got off the plane and I got a cab to  meet my girlfriend, who lived in Montreal at the time. I always remember there was this big apartment building across the street from our house that was coloured teal blue. 

This book is beautiful and she's a really great writer.

"I had a picture because I loved how it looked. Because this book was all about blue and what it meant to write, I was enthralled with blue. I was so excited to get out of this cab and  see this building. I got out of the cab and I looked to it — and the whole building had been painted grey. 

"I was so gutted that, after I said hi to my girlfriend, I went to a tattoo parlour down the street for a sec. I got this blue square tattooed on my arm because I was so sad about that. 

"This book is beautiful and she's a really great writer."

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

This 1975 image released by William Morrow shows author Robert M. Pirsig working on a motorcycle. (HarperTorch/William Morrow via AP)

"It tells the story of a man who, as far as I can recall, he puts together manuals for furniture and stuff. He goes on this motorcycle adventure across America with his son. While he does this, he dissects the philosophy of quality and what quality means. 

It shaped the way that I think about art and the way that I think about life.

"Although it sounds very heady, it's a beautiful book. It shaped the way that I think about art and the way that I think about life. And it resonated with me a lot when I was younger." 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Hugo Award-winning novelist Philip K. Dick speculates about the existential questions a digital future might hold in his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Nicole Olivieri Panter/Del Rey)

"I have to dedicate this book to my friend Simon Wilcox, who is a dear friend of mine. I collaborate with her on almost all my music. She's an amazing songwriter and we wrote a song called Machine. We had written almost the whole song together, line by line, and when we got to the end, for the last line of the chorus she wrote, 'Circuits freeze and androids never dream/You're more than a machine.'

It's just a really cool book.

"I was so blown away by that lyric when she wrote it. I asked her, 'How did you think of that?' And she said, 'Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.' And I was like, 'What language are you speaking?'

"So I went home and I bought the book because I was like, 'Well, I just co-wrote a song about a book I've never read.' And it's just a really rad book. It's the basis of Blade Runner. I remember going to the bookstore to buy it and they were like, 'Yeah, we don't have any left because they all get stolen every time we put them on the shelves.' 

"It's just a really cool book."

Scott Helman's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

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