Kim Cooper’s 33⅓ entry on Neutral Milk Hotel’s magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a good read for fans of the album, the band, or the alternative music scene in Georgia during the 90’s but it probably holds little interest for anyone else. Cooper isn’t writing for people outside the fold; the book assumes a working knowledge of Jeff Mangum, his friends, and their work. Casual references are made to bands like Great lakes, Olivia Tremor Control, and Of Montreal, with their lineups occasionally mentioned absent any introduction or framework for understanding. If you’re not already at least somewhat familiar with the subject, a Wikipedia survey might not be amiss.
The back of the book describes it as “a lovingly researched oral history of the Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 collective”. The research is evident; Cooper seems to have made every effort to talk to as many disparate people as possible, peppering the text with long excerpts from band members and other involved parties. The choice to focus on the entire span of NMH existence serves the book well, and while her fact-checking seems to be especially thorough, but the presentation as “oral history” felt a bit clunky. It’s written in a loose past tense, with far too much self aggrandizing regarding the telling of the tale. Late in the third act Cooper abandons the form entirely to give us her personal interpretation of the meaning found within the tracklist of the album, a jarring and unnecessary break from the narrative that reads something like a good undgrad newspaper’s review of the LP.
Why do we read? Many of my friends read for practical edification; they consume long non-fiction tomes about economics, history, pop culture or technology. They read to learn something new or deepen their knowledge of something dear to them. If you are that kind of reader, (at least some of the time, like I am) and if you are interested in the subject, go ahead. The book is well-written, and the problems I’ve outlined above are more than manageable. If not, I’d look for a book in this series that touches on an album closer to your heart. While Darnielle’s Master of Reality is for anybody willing to pick it up, Cooper’s entry on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is one for the fans.