Losing Music

A Memoir of Art, Pain, and Transformation
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“Understatedly elegant […] Cotter turned adversity into quiet triumph.”—WALL STREET JOURNAL
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Finalist for the 2024 Colorado Book Award in Creative Nonfiction
A Vulture Best Book of the Year

“I was in the car the first time music seemed strange: the instruments less distinct, the vocals less crisp.”

John Cotter was thirty years old when he first began to notice a ringing in his ears. Soon the ringing became a roar inside his head. Next came partial deafness, then dizziness and vertigo that rendered him unable to walk, work, sleep, or even communicate. At a stage of life when he expected to be emerging fully into adulthood, teaching and writing books, he found himself “crippled and dependent,” and in search of care.

When he is first told that his debilitating condition is likely Ménière’s Disease, but that there is “no reliable test, no reliable treatment, and no consensus on its cause,” Cotter quits teaching, stops writing, and commences upon a series of visits to doctors and treatment centers. What begins as an expedition across the country navigating and battling the limits of the American healthcare system, quickly becomes something else entirely: a journey through hopelessness and adaptation to disability. Along the way, hearing aids become inseparable from his sense of self, as does a growing understanding that the possibilities in his life are narrowing rather than expanding. And with this understanding of his own travails comes reflection on age-old questions around fate, coincidence, and making meaning of inexplicable misfortune.

A devastating memoir that sheds urgent, bracingly honest light on both the taboos surrounding disability and the limits of medical science, Losing Music is refreshingly vulnerable and singularly illuminating—a story that will make readers see their own lives anew.

Publish Date
8.5 × 5.5 × 1 in
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John Cotter

John Cotter is the author of Losing Music and the novel Under the Small Lights.

Praise and Prizes

  • “An acute and very beautiful book.”

    Teju Cole, author of  Known and Strange Things: Essays
  • “Understatedly elegant […] In articulating what is now gone, Mr. Cotter vibrantly evokes the sensations of life before the beginning of the end of his hearing […] Notwithstanding the personal catastrophe that deafness represents, it did give Mr. Cotter the ideal subject, transformed through literary grace, for a book. [… ] Losing Music comes closer to expressing the transcendent sensation by nearly being music itself. Its author turned adversity into quiet triumph. Evidence that Mr. Cotter’s ear is still keen for the melodies of language sings from every page.”

    Wall Street Journal
  • “In this bracing memoir, essayist Cotter recounts his experience with an incurable inner ear disorder….The result is a poignant reflection on disability.”

    Publishers Weekly
  • “In an affecting debut memoir, novelist and essayist Cotter recounts the health crisis that transformed his sense of self and connection to his world […] A gracefully rendered, candid chronicle of trauma.”

    Kirkus Reviews
  • “In his moving memoir, John Cotter anticipates a world without sound. Losing Music offers a compelling portrait of how deafness isolates people from even those closest to them. […] More broadly, he also challenges us to better understand how any disability radically alters a person’s sense of self.”

    Washington Post
  • “Cotter writes about the embodied experience of hearing loss vividly and within a network of contexts: that of caregiving and that of medical science’s many unsolved mysteries.”

    Maddie Crum, The Vulture
  • “Cotter makes clear in his remarkable memoir, Losing Music, one of Ménière’s cruelest elements is its imprecision […] It’s unclear to Cotter—and any of us—how much time we have left to consume, love, and share art. Through describing that uncertainty, Cotter reveals its value.”

    On the Seawall
  • “What happens when something you’ve loved your whole life becomes something that causes you pain? That’s a question at the center of John Cotter’s new memoir, which chronicles his diagnosis with a condition that’s likely Ménière’s Disease—and the physical and psychological effects that it had on him. It’s a harrowing and insightful look at a challenging time in its author’s life.”

    Inside Hook
  • “John Cotter’s memoir examines hearing loss, challenges with the American healthcare system, adaptation to disability, and questions of fate, coincidence, and making meaning from misfortune. This is a moving and vulnerable story.”

    Kathy Baum, 5280 Magazine
  • Losing Music is a stunning, expansively beautiful book. Not just because of John Cotter’s precise and vivid language on a sentence level, but also because of how it moves so tenderly through the vanishing of sound, and not just sound, but songs—points of connection that can be taken for granted. And even beyond this reality, Losing Music is not solely a sad book. It is also a book of comforts, of joys, of closeness. I am thankful for all of its movements.”

    Hanif Abdurraqib
    author of A Little Devil in America
  • “I’m not sure what I’d do if my body became a seemingly unsolvable mystery, and I can’t know how I’d handle the fear, frustration, and despair, but I doubt I’d have either the fortitude or the imagination to do what John Cotter has achieved in this book. Losing Music is a remarkable memoir: unsettling, insightful, and gorgeously written. I’ll be pressing this book into many people’s hands.”

    Maggie Smith
    author of Goldenrod
  • “Lighthouse writing instructor John Cotter’s memoir examines loss, challenges with the American health care system, adaptation to disability, and questions of fate, coincidence, and making meaning from misfortune. This is a moving and vulnerable story.”

    Kathy Baum, Tattered Cover, Denver, CO
  • “Cotter first notices that music sounds off, and then he’s plagued by vertigo. A memoir about dramatically changing one’s life and dealing with a mysterious illness. I highly recommend!”

    Caitlin Luce Baker, Island Books, Mercer Island, WA
  • “This is a memoir about the loss of an important sense—hearing. It’s also about what was gained as Cotter was compelled to contemplate his short personal history, his goals and the meaning of life. The diagnosis came quickly and at a young age—a rare disease, origins not understood and for which there is no known treatment. Quitting his work, he travels cross-country in search of help. Meanwhile, he has to come to grips with the loss of so many strengths he had become accustomed to, and to learn about the language and other taboos related to disability. And to think about the many, many people who have suffered their own similar losses, through war, accidents or just plain happenstance. This short memoir is moving, in some ways frightening, but also hopeful. There is life after loss. It’s a matter of perseverance, bravery and accepting change.”

    Linda Bond, Auntie’s Book Shop, Spokane, WA
  • “This story is deeply reflective and moving, full of sorrow, hope, and how to cope after being humbled by a crippling disease. I’m grateful that Cotter was able to overcome his obstacles to tell his story.”

    Todd Miller, Arcadia Books, Spring Green, WI
  • Losing Music is the outstanding work of a straightforward memoirist with a wry sense of humor who feels very much like a good friend.”

    Susan Braunstein
    New Rochelle Public Library
  • “This memoir by John Cotter has made me think more about disabled people, homeless people, suicidal people, and lonely people, and I want to learn more—a lot more about Jonathan Swift—and how to help more people and be more compassionate. How many books can you say that about?”

    Mollie Mitchell, HearthFire Books, Evergreen, CO
  • “John Cotter brings sound to the page as something tactile: abrasive, elusive, fluid, textured, a current between body and mind. He fashions language into a velvety pocket in a harsh world. Losing Music is a phenomenal book about what it’s like to be sick and suffering, and in it, I recognize not only the isolating nature of illness, but also a powerful intimacy with one’s own changing self.”

    Elissa Washuta
    author of White Magic
  • “I think the hardest thing for a personal writer to do is think well and feel well at the same time. John Cotter’s writing is bursting with as much intellect as heart. It’s as clear-eyed and incisive as it is moving. It’s what nonfiction should be.”

    Lucas Mann
    author of Captive Audience and Lord Fear
  • Losing Music is a fascinating, heartbreaking, deeply personal story from one of the most talented essayists around. It’s a book about art and illness, the betrayals of the body, and what is kept and what is lost as time goes by.”

    Justin Taylor
    author of Flings and Riding with the Ghost
  • “Devastating and beautiful. Losing Music is pieced together in a particularly uncanny way, like scraps of conversation that gradually coalesce into an immensely powerful and meaningful whole.”

    Sam Sacks
    columnist, Wall Street Journal
  • Losing Music is a vertiginous journey of loss and discovery triggered by the onset of an unpredictable and mysterious disability. With poetic energy, John Cotter describes the roaring and swirling particulars of Ménière’s disease, while he grapples with universal questions of meaning and suffering. The memoir effortlessly blends personal stories with delightful deep dives into sound dynamics, inner-ear anatomy, and eighteenth-century author Jonathan Swift, who becomes a much needed friend—‘articulate, accessible, free with his time,’ and, I might add, darkly funny, dramatic, and brilliant, not unlike Cotter himself.”

    M. Leona Godin
    author of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness
  • “More than about Ménière’s, Losing Music is a powerful addition to the memoir canon—hard-hitting, beautiful, profound—a story of finding safe ground in a world regularly buffeted by very rough seas.”

    The Millions
  • ”[Losing Music] deepens our understanding of sound, human connection, and what it means to be (and remain) alive.”

    Shelby Smoak, Washington Independent Review of Books
  • Losing Music explodes an individual experience of illness into a cultural and medical reckoning; with a sociologist’s rigor and a poet’s lyricism, Cotter takes readers on an odyssey through the social history of disability, the brutal bureaucracy of the American healthcare system, and the intimate violence of living in a volatile body. But this memoir is just as much a love letter to sound itself as it is a chronicle of loss; your world will sound different after reading it.”

    Charley Burlock, Oprah Daily