Browsing for books at the library before my recent holiday, I chanced upon Nick Hornby’s More Baths Less Talking, the fourth collection of his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns in Believer magazine. Hornby has long been one of my favourite writers, though of late I’ve been meaning to reread his novels—High Fidelity in particular—paying more attention to his protagonists’ attitudes towards women (I reckon I might find the dudes a bit laddish, but will hopefully still love the book). Perhaps we have similar pop culture sensibilities, is all, but I really do like Hornby’s nonfiction for he writes in an easygoing, just slightly self-deprecating voice that both entertains and informs, rather than intimidates. When he recommends a song or a book it feels like when a friend casually tells you, over coffee or a beer, to check out a band or a writer they’re into, rather than the overlords at, say, Pitchfork guarding the gates to the Good Taste Club and testing you with secret lyrical handshakes before you can get in. In other words, Hornby comes across as one of those people who’s actually enthusiastic about things they like.
I very much enjoyed reading More Baths Less Talking. Hornby does read widely—both fiction and nonfiction—though I should perhaps note that the vast majority of the titles are by Western authors, or about Western topics (Austerity Britain, 1945-51, The Lodger Shakespeare, Lucille Ball…), or set in the Western context. I try, myself, to strike a balance between reading books that are Western and not, but here I don’t especially take issue with Hornby for his selections because the books he does write about sound, for the most part, very interesting themselves, and, I suppose, I empathise with the (pleasurable, if dizzying) dilemma of there being so many wonderful books in the world and not enough time to read and appreciate them all.
The essays in this collection are published over the period May 2010 to November / December 2011. This was also the time period when I first started to pay more regular attention to the publishing industry, to creative writing outlets and to reviews of new releases, thanks to renewed authorly aspirations which were shaped by the writing courses I took with classmates and instructors largely espousing a certain fashionable contemporary literary fiction sensibility—Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, etc. So it was interesting to read Hornby’s thoughts on works that, if I have already read them, I’d approached with certain expectations in mind, and if I hadn’t, which I fully do mean to read, such as Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed Brooklyn, Meg Wolitzer, even John Green.
To the extent that Hornby’s essays are meant to add to bookworms’ already-towering to-read lists, well, he’s certainly achieved his goal. To even my own surprise, I’m now keen to read an extended essay on Celine Dion, a hefty biography of Charles Dickens, and a book (ostensibly) about fishing in Sweden. The last of these I actually did see in an airport bookshop—in Stockholm, I think—on the aforementioned holiday, but English-language books were awfully pricey there and I opted to wait. Still, I hope to write about it next month!
“After all, there is a rough-and-ready agreement on literary competence, on who can string a sentence together and who can’t, that complicates any wholesale rejection of critical values in literature. In popular music, though, a whole different set of judgments is at play. We forgive people who can’t sing or construct a song or play their instruments, as long as they are cool, or subversive, or deviant; we do not dismiss Dion because she’s incompetent. Indeed, her competence may well be a problem, because it means she excludes nobody, apart from us, and those who invest heavily in cultural capital don’t like art that can’t exclude: it’s confusing.”
If this sounds like the kind of book you might enjoy, I also recommend Hornby’s 31 Songs (published as Songbook in the US), his collection of 31 essays on songs that are meaningful to him. There, too, he demonstrates his love of pop culture and his knack for engaging the reader’s attention and, often, sympathy while relating humorous, heartfelt anecdotes from his own life, and the soundtrack that accompanied them.
(Book cover image from here)