Monday, March 16, 2015

Nick Hornby: Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Soaking In Great Books

In the fall of 2003, Nick Hornby began writing a monthly column for The Believer magazine, talking about the books he bought and read each month.

The rules of the column were not all that strict, though, and so he also found time to write about films, football, and life. A decade of these columns was published a couple of years ago by McSweeney's as Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Soaking In Great Books.

I absolutely loved reading this collection, so much so that for awhile I was thinking I should attempt some watered-down version of the same thing. There is something special about good writing that makes you want to write. Hornby's love for books is total, and infectious, and his writing style is like listening to a good friend over a few pints just shoot the shit about what he's been reading.

As far as Hornby's own books, I really enjoyed Fever Pitch. I've tried two of his novels: High Fidelity was fun, but began to feel like it was a screenplay masquerading as a novel, and I could not get into Juliet, Naked. (That may not be enough of a sample to make any definitive decision on his fiction, however.)

Here are some snips from Ten Years In The Tub (I could have easily picked a dozen others):

On Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude:
I loved Motherless Brooklyn, and I knew a little bit about his book before I started it - I knew, for example, that a lot of funk records and Marvel comics were mentioned by name. In other words, it wasn't just up my street; it was actually knocking on my front door and peering through the letterbox to see if I was in. ...

The Fortress of Solitude is one of those rare novels that felt as though it had to be written; in fact, it's one of those novels that deals with something so crucial - namely, the relationship between a middle-class white boy and black culture - that you can't believe it hasn't been written before. ... This is a painful, beautiful, brave, poetic and definitive book ... and although it has flaws, the right reader will not only forgive them but love them - just as the right listener loves the flaws in, say, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. They are the flaws that come from ambition, not of ineptitude.
On Charles Dickens:
Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where. (Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town! ...) At one point near the beginning of the book, David runs away, and ends up having to sell the clothes he's wearing for food and drink. It would be enough, maybe, to describe the physical hardship that ensued; but Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like "Oh, my lungs and liver" and "Goroo!" a lot. ...

Dickens is having fun, and he extends the scene way beyond its function. Rereading it now, it seems almost to have been conceived as a retort to spareness, because the scary guy insists on paying David for his jacket in halfpenny installments over the course of an afternoon, and thus ends up sticking around for two whole pages. Could he have been cut? Absolutely he could have been cut. But there comes a point in the writing process when a novelist - any novelist, even a great one - has to accept that what he is doing is keeping one end of a book away from the other, filling up pages, in the hope that these pages will move, provoke, and entertain a reader.
On Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang:
I came across The Family Fang as a result of good old-fashioned browsing, an activity that the internet, the decline of bookshops, and a ludicrously optimistic book-buying policy (see every previous column in these pages) has rendered almost obsolete. I picked it up because of the great Ann Patchett's generous and enthusiastic blurb - "The best single-word description would be genius" - and it stayed picked up because, on further investigation, it appeared to be a novel at least partly about art and why we make it, and I love books on that subject. ...

The Family Fang is pretty much the kind of novel you might dream of finding during an aimless twenty minutes in a bookstore: it's ambitious, it's funny, it takes its characters seriously, and it has soul - here defined as that beautiful ache fiction can bring on when it wants the best for us all while simultaneously accepting that most of the time, even good enough isn't possible.
On Gabriel Zaid's So Many Books:
Zaid's finest moment, however, comes in his second paragraph, when he says that "the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more."

That's me! And you, probably! That's us! "Thousands of unread books"! "Truly cultured"! ... I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. ... [W]ith each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.
On Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats:
You have probably read those stories of how people in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured by having American pop music blasted at them day and night. And you have probably read or heard many of the jokes made as a consequence of these stories - people writing in to newspapers to say that if you have a teenager who listens to 50 Cent or Slipknot all day then you know how those Iraqi prisoners feel, etc. and so on. (Even the Guardian made lots of musical torture jokes for a while.) Ronson floats the intriguing notion that the jokes were an integral part of the strategy; in other words, if you can induce your citizens to laugh at torture, then outrage will be much harder to muster. Stupidity is, despite all appearances to the contrary, a complicated state of mind. Who's stupid, in the end - them or us?
On Bob Dylan's Chronicles:
Chronicles ends up managing to inform without damaging the mystique, which is some feat. In fact, after reading this book, you end up realizing that Dylan isn't willfully obtuse or artful in any way - it's just who he is and how his mind works. And this realization in turn has the effect of contextualizing his genius - maybe even diminishing it, if you had a lot invested in his genius being the product of superhuman effort. He thinks in apocalyptic metaphors and ellipses, and clearly sees jokers and thieves and five (or more) believers everywhere he looks, so writing about them is, as far as he is concerned, no big deal. ...

What's so impressive about Chronicles is the seriousness with which Dylan has approached the task of explaining what it's like to be him and how he got that way ... [B]y the end of the book he has illuminated great swathes of his interior life - the very part one had no real hope of ever being able to see.
One theme of this collection is that Hornby is constantly discovering new writers - sometimes from randomly buying books - absolutely loving their work, and then wondering how he could have been so ignorant and unaware of these classics. In particular, he's astounded by many young adult novels, such as David Almond's Skellig ("one of the best novels written for anyone published in the last fifteen years"):
They've been very disorienting, these last few weeks. I see now that dismissing YA books because you're not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you're not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I've discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that's filled with masterpieces I've never heard of, the YA equivalents of The Maltese Falcon and Strangers on a Train. ... The world suddenly seems a larger place.
Hornby loses points for calling the Beatles "the greatest band in the history of the world", but I must thank him profusely for turning me on to John Carey, the author of The Intellectuals And The Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 and What Good Are The Arts? If you have ever wondered about the concepts of "high culture" and "low culture", how and when they were created and how they have evolved, and what they mean, you owe it to yourself to read these two fascinating books.

On What Good Are The Arts?:
It's rare, I think, for a writer, maybe for anyone, to feel that he's just read a book that absolutely expresses who he or she is, and what he or she believes, while at the same time recognizing that he or she could not have written any of it. ... I couldn't have written it because I - and I'm not alone, by any means - do not have Carey's breadth of reading, or his calm, wry logic, which enables him to demolish the arguments of just about everyone who has ever talked tosh about objective aesthetic principles. ... What Good Are The Arts? is a very wise book, and a very funny book, but beyond even these virtues, it's a very humane, inclusive, and empathetic book; as we all know, it's impossible to talk about "high" art without insulting the poor, or the young, or those without a university degree, or those who have no taste for, or interest in, Western culture. Casey's approach to the whole sorry mess is the only one that makes any sense. Indeed, while reading it, you become increasingly amazed at the muddle that apparently intelligent people have got themselves into when they attempt to define the importance of - and the superiority of - "high" culture.
And, then, finally, on reading:
One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good. ... If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity - and there are statistics which show that this is by no means assured - then we have to promote the joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits. I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a TV program. Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn't mean you're dim - you may find Graham Greene is more to your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch, or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever. It doesn't matter.

1 comment:

laura k said...

Wow, this sounds amazing. Sounds like I should read and review it for the library's nonfiction books blog.