Nick Hornby rose to fame for expertly explaining the man-boy world to legions. His memoir Fever Pitch chronicles his devotion to the Arsenal football (soccer) club. His novels High Fidelity, About a Boy and, more recently, Juliet, Naked talk of grown men still struggling with relationships.
But Hornby is also well-known as a screenwriter and essayist. He received an Oscar nomination for screenplay adaptation for the 2009 Carey Mulligan-Peter Sarsgaard drama An Education and he writes a column on reading (called, appropriately, “Stuff I've Been Reading”) for The Believer magazine. Hornby's fourth collection of these essays, More Baths Less Talking, was released earlier this year.
On Monday night, he joined journalist and author Tom Bissell at the Writers Guild Theater to discuss writing, reading and pop culture as part of the Writer's Bloc series. As a tribute to Hornby's High Fidelity and its main character's obsession with lists, we offer the top five takeaways from that conversation.
5. It's OK not to finish a book.
“[We have a] feeling of duty with books,” says Hornby. “We don't feel duty-bound to get all the way through a TV program. If we're not enjoying it, we turn over. Movies, we tend to give more of the benefit of the doubt because they're only 90 minutes or two hours. But books, there is this thing of, 'It's a book, I've got to finish it.' Once you create this thing between duty and reading, it's over. Reading's over.
“So I'm on a one-man campaign to tell people if you don't like the book, stop reading it. It doesn't mean the book's bad — it's not for you at this time in your life. The whole point of reading is that the writer is speaking to you, and if you're not listening, you're not going to have any fun reading.”
4. Novels help us decipher pop culture and history.
“If you're reading a novel that was written in 1964, you'll find out more about 1964 than if you're reading a nonfiction book written in 1964 because you're hearing how language was actually used and hearing what people's actual concerns were at the beginning of the 1960s,” Hornby says. “Fiction will be used, if it's used at all [in the future], as an accurate record of what we were like.”
3. Let kids read fun stuff.
“Dickens was rubbish in his time,” Hornby says. “He wrote serialized actions … but those books were given the kind of energy to get through the next few hundred years and now kids have to read them.”
He adds that adults can appreciate the history and language in, say, Dickens' stories, but it's hard for today's children to relate to them. Instead, he says, get them interested in today's popular young adult fiction: “J.K. Rowling got it. Twilight got it. The Hunger Games got it. … What you're doing is building an addiction to the written word. And if it isn't a gateway into bigger stuff, the big thing that no one tells you is that nothing bad will come to you if you don't read Jane Austen.”
2. The world of a famous writer isn't so glamorous.
“Most of my working day, working months, working years are spent not being famous,” Hornby says. “That's how I stay level-headed. You're famous if you Google yourself. It's a miserable, lonely life. … It is completely random if people have any awareness [of who you are] at all. I really think anyone who just wants to a writer, being famous doesn't come into it at all. I would like to get something done” instead of spending time being famous.
He told a story of his young son being surprised when a fan came up to them on the street. You mean people had read his dad's books? How? He also says his TV repairman confused him with another balding, pale-skinned British guy named Nick — Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park.
1. Music is art, but snobbery about music taste is wrongheaded.
“In Songbook I have a quote that 'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,'” Hornby says. “And I really feel that [in music] there's a purity and a sensibility. And there's a feeling and a meaning. If you're going to make a movie, you have to show images and people. Books have a way of showing things, but you're still stunted. But when musicians get it right, it just sort of mainlines into that impotence to make art.”
Yet similarly to his arguments about classical literature, Hornby says, “If a Martian came down and you played him 'Gangnam Style' and you said, 'This is my guilty pleasure,' and then you played a James Brown record and said, 'This is the good stuff,' the Martian I think would be confused. The Martian would not see enough of a difference between 'Gangham Style' and James Brown to see why one is a work of art and one is a guilty pleasure. How many pop singles have got bass guitars, drums and a chorus? … [T]he snobbery that's attached to things that sound exactly the same.”