Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Nick Hornby

Dear Mr. Hornby,

Please stop writing your column; I have enough to read already.

I would never actually write this to Nick Hornby. First, I’m disturbingly enamoured with his writing. Second, the man is British.

I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t comply with my request anyways. Hornby seems to exhale text the same way the rest of us exhale carbon dioxide. He’s written seven novels (fiction and non-fiction included), edited four anthologies, and been involved in the adaptation of five of those books into film (About A Boy, High Fidelity, A Long Way Down, and two versions of Fever Pitch). And all that since 1992.[i]

Additionally, Hornby is a fairly prominent literary critic (and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature!*), contributing to journals like the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, and The Independent. His most regular column, however, is the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” a feature in the literary magazine, The Believer [ii].

I can’t say I’m very familiar with The Believer, but I can with confidence claim my complete and thorough knowledge of all of Hornby’s columns in the magazine from 2003-2006. McSweeny’s has collected and republished the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns from these years into two volumes: The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle with the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Meaning to Read (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2004)and Housekeeping vs. The Dirt: Fourteen Months of Massively Witty Adventures in Reading Chronicled by the National Book Critics Circle Finalist for Criticism (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2006).

The subtitular clause “and Books He’s Been Meaning to Read,” suggests that even though Hornby would never comply with my request to stop writing, he would, in fact, understand it. Every article in “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” begins with two columns: “Books Bought” and “Books Read,” with the former generally outweighing the latter. For all his film adaptations and “I’m a famous person” interviews, Hornby, like me, and like you [iii], finds himself having to come to terms with the sheer volume of books in existence which even the most devoted* reader will never be able to read.

Because no article in The Blotted Line would be complete without a lengthy excerpt, here’s a bit from “May 2005” in Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt:

Earlier today I was in a bookstore, and picked up a new book about the migration patterns of the peregrine falcon. For a moment, I ached to buy it — or rather, I ached to be the kind of person who would buy it, read it, and learn something from it. I mean, obviously I could have bought it, but I could also have taken the fifteen pounds from my pocket and eaten it, right in the middle of Borders, and there seemed just as much point in the latter course of action as the former […]

This month, my taste in books seems to have soured on me: every book I pick up seems to be exactly the sort of book I always pick up. On the way home from the bookstore, as I was pondering the unexpectedly seductive lure of the peregrine falcon, I tried to name the book least likely to appeal to me that I have actually read all the way through, and I was struggling for an answer. Isn’t that ridiculous? You’d have thought there’d be something, somewhere — an apparently ill-advised dalliance with a book about mathematics or physics, say, or a history of some country that I didn’t know anything about, but there’s nothing. […] I would like my personal reading map to resemble a map of the British Empire circa 1900; I’d like people to look at it and think, How the hell did he end up right over there? As it is, I make only tiny incursions into the territory of my own ignorance — every year, another classic novel conquered here, a couple of new literary biographies beaten down there. To be honest, I’m not sure I can spare the troops for conquests further afield: they’re needed to quell all the rebellions and escape attempts at home. (49-51)

What English student (or literature addict) can’t relate?

Now before you accuse me of liking Nick purely for self-affirming reasons, I’d like to preempt you with an eloquent “so what?” Hornby’s witty perspective on the potentially frustrating limitations which all bibliophiles encounter is both cathartic and reassuring. More, the concision with which he writes enables me to fit these cathartic readings into the regular mountains of canonical and theoretical readings assigned by a despotic and anxiety-inducing syllabus.

Not that Hornby doesn’t often add to that anxiety: just flipping through his columns this morning, I am reminded that I need to read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (New York: Picador, 2001), Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin (London: Harvil Press, 2003), and Hornby’s own A Long Way Down (Riverhead: London, 2006). Given my already lengthy summer reading list, I know that these titles will probably not be read by the end of this, or even next summer (though, who knows, my well-intended plans to read the major novels of V. Woolf might not come to fruition; hopefully I’ll at least make it through Orlando before she gets shunted aside for some flashy young upstart novelist).

Even if I don’t make it through another of Hornby’s novels, I know he’ll forgive me: because he understands, you see? Which is another reason to read self-affirming literature. Us literary-types spend much of our time reading quietly on our own, thinking circular thoughts about our own research, building anxiety about our own procrastination and limitations as students and teachers, it’s nice to have a figure — especially a successful public figure — remind us we are not alone in these limitations, and to ease up on ourselves occasionally.

So Mr. Hornby, please keep writing about all the clever, ennobling and innovative stuff you’ve been reading that I’ll never have time to read. Better yet, keep recording your experiences with all the clever, ennobling books that you’ll never have time to read. I’ll keep intending to read them all.

End Notes:

[i] And all that since 1992. Additionally, he has a family, is a founder parent of TreeHouse, and a devoted (ecstatic?) fan of Arsenal, as well as a lot of other stuff which you can read about in his blog.

[ii] The Believer seems to be the home of all the good American writers and musicians these days. I can’t really do it justice, but it is the reason I sort of know about Chabon, Lethem, and Dave Eggers, etc. Visit their site and read some articles.

[iii] like you. I’m assuming that most people who make it through my ridiculously lengthy articles about Barthes and Thomas Middleton are going to be of the literary type.

19 April 2008

Glossary of Terms:

Devoted. adj. One who is willing to give up his/her job and all friends and family for the sake of reading as much of the canon as possible.

Royal Society of Literature. n.nom. “The Royal Society of Literature was founded by King George IV in 1820, to ‘reward literary merit and excite literary talent’.” That’s from the website, folks, so it has to be accurate.

Also (and this has to be set apart from the rest, I think you’ll agree), in the RSL, “Fellows sign the roll book with Dickens’s quill or Byron’s pen”.

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One thought on “Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Nick Hornby

  1. Pingback: Non-Accredited Book Reviews: David Mitchell. « The Blotted Line

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