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About a Book 

Nick Hornby, ambivalent reader

Thursday, Jan 6 2005

"I was already friends with Dave and Vendela, yeah," said Nick Hornby, taking a drag off a Silk Cut in a hotel room high above Gramercy Park in New York City. I was asking him how he’d gotten hooked up with The Believer, the evangelizing literary magazine sponsored by Dave Eggers (and his wife and partner, Vendela Vida). "When the mag started, they asked me if I wanted to write something about music, and I didn’t really. I’d just had this really cool reading month where one thing led to another thing, and I’d never seen anyone write about exactly what they’ve read, as opposed to what they’ve been paid to read, and I thought it might be a quite nice idea for a column."

London-ish rain, only harder, more American you might say, had greeted Hornby’s visit to New York, where he was engaged in diffidently promoting The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of his columns from The Believer about reading, not reading and trying to read. Hornby, who is utterly ordinary-looking except for ears that stick out from his bald head like miniature satellite dishes, didn’t look like one of England’s more successful novelists (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How To Be Good), but he was slightly more plausible as the author of that agonized account of borderline soccer-fandom insanity, Fever Pitch. Still, if you saw him on the street in London, you’d probably take him for a mildly prosperous electrician.

The Polysyllabic Spree is the first in a proposed series of Believer books that will be published by McSweeney’s. Forthcoming titles include a study of H.P. Lovecraft by Michel Houellebecq, and a collection of Jim Shepard’s film essays. Spree is about books, but it is not particularly bookish, and it certainly isn’t highbrow, despite that mouthful of a title. (It refers to, besides the band of similar name, the "12 terrifyingly beatific young men and women who run The Believer.") Hornby writes about reading from the perspective of someone who has to balance the activity against his equally strong desire to do something else. In other words, he drops the novel into the marketplace and lets it fend for itself. (So, what’s it going to be tonight? Orhan Pamuk or The West Wing? Arsenal vs. Chelsea or Bob Dylan’s autobiography?)

He also juxtaposes classics like Cyril Connolly’s The Enemies of Promise with whatever’s just arrived in the bookstores. The early signs aren’t good for the newcomers. "I haven’t finished the Richard Yates biography yet," he writes in his column from October 2003. "I will, however, say this much: It is 613 pages long." Point taken. And in August 2004, he places Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, for many critics the best novel of the year, in the "Books Bought" side of the ledger, but it never makes it over into "Books Read."

One recent novel he genuinely admires is Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. "Anyone who has grown up listening to black music, or even white music derived from black music, will have some point of connection to this book," he writes, calling it "painful, brave, poetic and definitive." It was the only unabashedly literary novel he praised in his column all year, except for old ones like David Copperfield and Hangover Square, and the suspicion is that the subject matter — urban pop-culture obsessives — has at least as much to do with his enthusiasm as the writing. Obviously some novels are going to mean more to you because they’re about something you identify with, but if almost everything else leaves you cold, then either you, or the novels themselves, have a problem.

Hornby thinks it’s the novels. "I haven’t read Alan Holling-hurst," he says, "but the way that everything seems a slog to get through, in a way that I don’t think books had been before . . ." His voice trails off, and then he flashes a crooked grin. "It is relatively new, this idea that you take all the fun out of reading and then you get a prize at the end of it! It’s the lack of fucking jokes in literary books that gets me down."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Polysyllabic Spree is its implied critique of the traditional book review, with its shopworn structure (career overview, synopsis, criticism) and fumbling for significance. As you might guess, Hornby isn’t an admirer, though he’s written plenty of reviews himself. He tells me about a Sarah Vowell essay in which she describes having to write about a new Tom Waits album for Spin. What she wants to say — all she has to say, really — is that she "quite liked the ballads." Unfortunately, her editor wants 700 words. "And I feel that so often!" says Hornby. "Not just about what it’s like to review books, but what it’s like to read reviews of books. The essential thing is ‘I quite liked the ballads,’ but nobody’s going to pay me to write that."

If all this sounds a bit, well, lazy, assume that Hornby is putting on a bit of an act. He does have an Everyman persona, after all. There’s also the matter of The Believer’s anti-snark angle, which meant he had to concentrate on books he liked, or at least thought he’d like, and avoid those he feared would bore him. More importantly, there’s Hornby’s own unique position in the writers’ cosmos, straddling both popular and literary fiction, and the gentle, user-friendly perspective that results from it.

"I suppose I wanted to talk about the act of reading, and all the guilt that surrounds reading, which is something I’ve thought a lot about over the last few years," he says, leaning back in his chair and taking a drag off another cigarette. "Partly from being a writer and seeing how people apologize all the time for not having read you, or not having read other books by other people, and I just felt sad about it, really. Not because people weren’t reading books, but because they had this terrible ingrained knee-jerk reaction to all things connected with literature. I do like to read, but, you know, it’s hard, and I do like watching telly, and I do like sport, and reading has to fight for its place within that. So it was a reading diary in the sense of not only writing about the books I was reading, but what it’s like to try and read when you have other things going on."

THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE | By NICK HORNBY | Believer Books | 143 pages | $14 paperback

  • Nick Hornby, ambivalent reader

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