2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: Killing Yourself to Live

If Assassination Vacation showed how premature death made at least two presidents notable (I think Lincoln could have lived to carry out his second term and been well-remembered, don’t you?), then Killing Yourself to Live is what you want to read if you want to know why some of the most famous rock and rollers are famous — for dying young. Chuck Klosterman, whose Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was one of my favorite books of the previous decade, spends this book on a trip around the country where he will be visiting the places where several important rock and pop artists met their untimely demises and other rock-oriented tragedies, all under the auspices of researching an article for Spin.

During the summer of 2003–the same year Vowell was looking into assassinations–he visits the club in Rhode Island that was where a concert by the band Great White led to the deaths of 100 people; the intersection where Duane Allman crashed his motorcycle; the field where the plane carrying The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly crashed; the apartment where The Replacements’ Bob Stinson died; and the site of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, among others. During his trip, Klosterman also writes about the trip itself, mostly about the women in his life, with whom he’s trying to reconcile or dump or maybe both at one point or another.

He also writes with an easy yet intelligent style that allows his readers to shift from reflections on his relationships to topics such as a deep examination as to whether or not certain artists are famous because they died young. His ruminations on the fame of singer Jeff Buckley, for instance, are spot on, as he wonders if Buckley’s drowning at a young age inflated the critical value of his album, Grace. Now, I’ll say I am a little biased to this part because I once made this observation on a listserv and got completely taken to task for it … so it kind of felt like validation.

ANYWAY, what I love about Klosterman’s writing (I have read all of them up to and including Eating the Dinosaur, which I intend to reread at some point because I didn’t really like it and want to give it another chance) is that he assumes that his audience is smart, yet doesn’t come off as patronizing or condescending to those who might not be. He’s not a snob (at least outwardly) and is certainly not a hipster, and he works with the same sort of analytical mind that I can really relate to.

Unfortunately, as much as the subject matter of this book is great, it’s not one I would recommend to students. Scratch that. It’s not one I would teach, because I have recommended it to students in the past, but those students were already reading one of his two prior books (the aforementioned Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Fargo Rock City). In fact, one of my students had kept it and read it for so long that she returned the dog-eared copy in a gift bag as her graduation present to me upon her graduation. Smart ass. But for students of pop culture, it’s a must-read, and for those who like travel books it’s a nice left turn (pun intended) away from what we’re used to seeing on bookstore shelves.

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