In Nick Hornby’s second collection of Believer columns, humour is the greatest takeaway.
Reading Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading (Penguin, NZ$37) is like having a long and lively discussion about books with someone who is intelligent, witty, and completely unpretentious about what he finds fascinating. Often following a theme he had never thought interesting before or “devouring the oeuvre” of someone he’s just met, Hornby seems to have the kind of reading life that allows him to indulge in and discuss the broadest range of writing, from Young Adult to non-fiction; from Francis Spufford to Celine Dion.
Stuff I’ve Been Reading is the name of Hornby’s column in The Believer and this book of the same name is a collection of these columns from 2006 to 2011—with a break in the middle where Hornby quits because “they never did have the guts to fire me” but returns sheepishly on the next page two years later: “It’s never easy, returning home after failing to make one’s way in the world.” Of course we know from Hornby’s own resume that he was very productive in this time, writing novels as well as the screenplay for the brilliant An Education.
Hornby’s columns each start with two lists: Books Bought and Books Read. This is fascinating in itself as the two rarely match up and some books are never mentioned again after appearing in the list. It is Believer policy to only write good things, so any book Hornby didn’t enjoy is noted by the lack of discussion on it. So called “bad reviews” has been a topic of discussion recently among New Zealand writers and readers and perhaps Hornby’s style would seem dissatisfying in this sense—less critical analysis and more a reading journal that chronicles the books he has acquired and devoured. He writes about this in his October 2006 column: “‘What we need,’ one of those scary critics who write for the serious magazines said recently, ‘is more straight talking about bad books.’ Well of course we do… Because then, surely, people would stop reading bad books, and writers would stop writing them, and the only books that anyone read or wrote would be the ones that the scary critics in the serious magazines liked, and the world would be a happier place.”
Hornby frequently down plays the “seriousness” of his reviews, but he is an astute reader and a highly respected writer himself. Although he may not delve into the “scary” critiquing of works, his reading remains vital to his life and he describes the circumstances of each month that have lead to him enjoying, abandoning or neglecting his reading. When the World Cup is on, in Sepember 2006 for example, he makes a “desperate attempt to draw attention away from the stark, sad entry under ‘Books Read’ at the top of this page.” and four years later he admits “The effect of the World Cup on the books I intended to read has been even more damaging in 2010 than it was in 2006.” Football is referenced constantly throughout the columns and any reader of Hornby’s work will know this—along with music—is a serious preoccupation of his. But other things about the writer’s life are revealed too. We get glimpses into his home life, for example: “It’s a wet Sunday morning, and I’m sitting on a sofa reading a book. On one side of me is my eldest son, Danny, who is seventeen and autistic. His feet are in my lap, and he’s watching a children’s TV programme on his iPad. Or rather, he’s watching a part of a children’s TV programme, over and over again: a song from Postman Pat entitled ‘Handyman Song’. Danny is wearing headphones, but I’ve just noticed that they’re not connected properly, so I can hear every word of the song, anyway. On my other side is another son, my eight-year-old, Lowell. He’s watching the Sunday morning football highlights…” He goes on to describe trying to read Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist in these conditions: “I’m pretty sure [Baker] wouldn’t choose for me to be reading his work under these circumstances, and I’m with him all the way. I’d rather be somewhere else too.”
Hornby covers ideas from the book world, ranging from ebooks—“clearly books, publishers, readers and writers are all doomed”—film adaptations—“it turns out that editing is kind of a metaphor for living”—the Oscars, music, and young adult literature—“I don’t have the heart to tell my sons that the older one gets, the less funny literature becomes.” Even though I did use Stuff I’ve Been Reading to compile my own list of books to read, the greatest joy I got from this collection was not so much Hornby’s insight into literature or the recommendations, but the dry humour and peripheral everyday life aspects that continue the thread from month to month. At times I laughed out loud or wished for right of reply in this discussion about the art of reading.