Listen to the Lost and Found

The Books Thought for Food

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

What do recordings of Lewis Carroll’s famous lines of portmanteau and nonsense, a child speaking at a Los Angeles aquarium, and Salvador Dali’s voice have in common? They are all curious sound bites used by musicians Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, collectively known as The Books.

Since they met in 1999, The Books have listened to and vetted thousands of such found sounds, which now comprise a vast library of audio recordings. Guitar, cello, samples from thrift store VHS and cassette tapes, and improvised percussion instruments such as filing cabinets, create music that melds folk and electronica, a process as much collage as composition.

Some compare The Books to notable aleatoric artists such as John Cage who combine unconventional instrumentation with chance; however, Zammuto and de Jong’s music is hardly random. Each sample is carefully modified and adapted to fit within a track’s overall aesthetic. In an interview at, de Jong explains that a single song can have as many as 150 different samples, and in Zammuto’s words, “there are a lot of samples in the final product that you’ll never hear unless you’re really¬†listening for it.” The snippets are often looped over one another, creating rich textures wrapped in warm folk melodies.

I listen deliberately to The Books because new sounds always surface that I never noticed before, so I wonder how I can apply that within the classroom. I imagine an exercise in listening between the lines. Students could read the same poem by turns while listening for different words to emerge, or listen to a famous speech while trying to lift new meaning from familiar quotes. Even if a child is not identified as an audio learner, it doesn’t mean they can’t strengthen that style of learning right alongside reading development and kinesthetic skill.

I try to complement my lessons with music whenever I can, so when I teach the three R’s next year, leading up to Earth Day, I will expand the idea of reducing, reusing, and recycling to listening, with sound and music. Listening to The Books is like playing I Spy with song, and their art illustrates how the lost, discarded, and forgotten can be reassembled into something beautiful. To purchase or hear The Books’ work, click here.

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