The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo (Paperback)
A poet’s audio obsession, from collecting his earliest vinyl to his quest for the ideal vacuum tubes. A captivating book that “ingeniously mixes personal memoir with cultural history and offers us an indispensable guide for the search of acoustic truth” (Yunte Huang, author of Charlie Chan).
Garrett Hongo’s passion for audio dates back to the Empire 398 turntable his father paired with a Dynakit tube amplifier in their modest tract home in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. But his adult quest begins in the CD-changer era, as he seeks out speakers and amps both powerful and refined enough to honor the top notes of the greatest opera sopranos. In recounting this search, he describes a journey of identity where meaning, fulfillment, and even liberation were often most available to him through music and its astonishingly varied delivery systems.
Hongo writes about the sound of surf being his first music as a kid in Hawai‘i, about doo-wop and soul reaching out to him while growing up among Black and Asian classmates in L.A., about Rilke and Joni Mitchell as the twin poets of his adolescence, and about feeling the pulse of John Coltrane’s jazz and the rhythmic chords of Billy Joel’s piano from his car radio while driving the freeways as a young man trying to become a poet.
Journeying further, he visits devoted collectors of decades-old audio gear as well as designers of the latest tube equipment, listens to sublime arias performed at La Scala, hears a ghostly lute at the grave of English Romantic poet John Keats in Rome, drinks in wisdom from blues musicians and a diversity of poetic elders while turning his ear toward the memory-rich strains of the music that has shaped him: Hawaiian steel guitar and canefield songs; Bach and the Band; Mingus, Puccini, and Duke Ellington. And in the decades-long process of perfecting his stereo setup, Hongo also discovers his own now-celebrated poetic voice.
About the Author
GARRETT HONGO was born in Volcano, Hawai‘i, and grew up on the North Shore of O‘ahu and in Los Angeles. His most recent books are Coral Road: Poems and The Mirror Diary: Selected Essays. A regular contributor to SoundStage! Ultra, Hongo lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon.
Oregon Book Awards Finalist for Creative Nonfiction
“His book is a stereo recording, with autobiography in one channel and his search for the best sound in the other. . . . Mr. Hongo’s telling is gripping.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Hongo’s work embodies ekphrasis. . . . His roving intellect plants surprises on every page.” —The Washington Post
“The Perfect Sound has a characteristic timelessness and dazzlingly encyclopedic sweep. . . . Memories of [Hongo’s] father secure the emotional architecture of the book.” —International Examiner
“Perfect in tone and pitch as a memoir can be. . . . Hongo writes as passionately and clearly about technology—speakers, turntables, CDs, and more—as he does about class, race, and ethnicity.” —New York Journal of Books
"One of Planet Earth's great writers, Garrett Hongo is also a music lover and audiophile. . . . As Garrett shares his life journey, he artfully weaves in his perceptions of the world, his remembrances of times past, family, stories of love and loss, and searching for meaning in life, in audio, and in music. . . . A brilliant book. Literally brought tears to my eyes as I was moved to reverie about forgotten life moments." —Jeff Day, Positive Feedback
"In many ways, [The Perfect Sound] reminds me of one of the baroque symphonies of Johann Sebastian Bach: a masterwork of themes, counterpoint, and ornamentation that carries the reader on an expanse of pure aesthetic pleasure. As a writer, Hongo’s prose is to be envied." —The Hawai'i Review of Books
“If as Walter Pater famously claimed, ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,’ Hongo’s acclaimed new memoir, The Perfect Sound, shows why his own resonant writing so often achieves it.” —Oregon ArtsWatch
“Hongo’s prose is so lush and evocative that the reading experience is exhilarating.” —Honolulu Magazine
“Monumental and magnificent . . . The Perfect Sound is not a single narrative but rather several narratives in one: a history of music and recording across time and genre; a son’s reminiscence of his father; a social history of California, Hawaii, and America since the 1950s; and perhaps more importantly, a poet’s notes on how he found his voice.” —Alta
“Hongo’s memoir mixes audiophile obsession and cultural history to provide a warm resonance of human relationships to recorded music and voices” —Library Journal
“Soulful . . . Hongo delivers a memorable memoir on reflection and artistry, as rendered through his audiophile tendencies . . . As he describes in lyrical, fervent passages, his penchant for spinning vinyl on cheap turntables would eventually become a love for elaborate equipment, amplifiers, speakers, and vacuum tubes . . . [A] paean to the power of music.” —Publishers Weekly
“Music throbs in the background throughout this spirited memoir . . . Along the way, the author offers a history of the invention of the vacuum tube, amplifiers, and the various permutations of the phonograph. A memoir of self-discovery via homage to the richness of sound.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Contrary to Marcel Duchamp’s quip that one can look at seeing but cannot hear hearing, in The Perfect Sound we hear the proverbial juice flowing, or blood rushing, in the soul of a poet acutely attuned to a world of sounds. From his first soundscape of ocean surf in Oahu to Rabelais’s fantastical sea of frozen words, from cicada to Aeolian harp, from La Bohème at La Scala to the Heart Sutra at a Kyoto temple, Garrett Hongo ingeniously mixes personal memoir with cultural history and offers us an indispensable guide for the search of acoustic truth.” —Yunte Huang, author of Charlie Chan
“Garrett Hongo is among writers who believe you can save everything, everyone—if only their music put into written words. Obsessively building and rebuilding audio machines, he recovers his Hawaiian childhood, his gone family, and the ancestors. The Perfect Sound is an enlightening read. —Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior
“Garrett Hongo is a master, but be advised: this memoir will have you spending hundreds of dollars on audio devices, and hours of delight and even awe as you read. It is not all about stereos—it is an aria of living, hearing, feeling, writing. Masterful.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
“Journeying with this gifted memorist into the heart of the ‘perfect sound’ is to engage with special harmonies of ecstasy and heartache. Erudite, sensual, frank and delightful, Garrett Hongo has always been for his devoted readers a singular kumu mele, our spirit guide to lovely song.” —Chang-rae Lee, author of My Year Abroad
“‘Exuberance is beauty,’ says William Blake, and this is a truly exuberant book: exuberant about music, about language, about life. Read and drink in its spirit!” —Mark Edmundson, author of The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll
"A quest organizes the telling of a life. In his memoir, The Perfect Sound, Garret Hongo’s deeply informed and passionate quest to bring recorded music to life ingeniously parallels his development as a poet seeking a voice that will become his recorded identity." —Stuart Dybek, author of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods
“Picking up where he left off in Volcano, Hongo shifts the focus in this new memoir from Hawaii to the wide-ranging soundtrack of his long life, well lived on three continents. His clean, poetic prose and dry sense of humor about his quest for the hypermaximal gear to hear it all anew are two of this book’s many pleasures.” —James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street