There are some writers, like, say, Jonathan Franzen, whom you read because you admire the way they craft a narrative, and there are others you enjoy because you imagine they would be loads of fun to drink bourbon with while listening to “Singles Going Steady” by the Buzzcocks.
Nick Hornby is one of those. Best known for his novels “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” the clever British storyteller has a knack for creating appealingly irresolute characters and is a genial guy with excellent taste and a smart, irreverent sense of humor.
At least that’s the impression one gets from “More Baths Less Talking: Notes From the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle With Football, Family, and Time Itself,” a collection of columns Hornby wrote for Dave Eggers’s monthly literary magazine The Believer. Called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” the column is an entertaining tally of what Hornby has read lately and what he’s learned along the way — about writers and writing, music and movies, bookselling and his beloved soccer, er, football team.
What’s interesting — and surprising — about these little book reports is that they’re all so damned positive. And that’s OK. Much as we like a bit of contempt with our criticism, we’re actually grateful that the author doesn’t waste our time writing about books he didn’t enjoy, or doesn’t think we will.
Hornby also gets credit for the variety of “stuff” he reads. There’s nonfiction (Rebecca
Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”), cultural anthropology (David Kynaston’s “Austerity Britain, 1945-1951”), biography (Claire Tomalin’s “Charles Dickens: A Life”), and a couple of literary crushes, notably Muriel Spark, whom Hornby had never read before but quickly falls madly in love with.
“I can’t remember the last time I read a book by a well-established writer previously unknown to me that resulted in me devouring an entire oeuvre,” he notes of Spark. “You want your oeuvre devoured? Look and learn.”
(Hornby doesn’t write about any of Marilynne Robinson’s books, but it’s clear from the number of mentions that he has a thing for the “Housekeeping” author, as he does, it seems, for Tom Perrotta, Elizabeth Bishop, and Meg Wolitzer.)
Of course, like the rest of us, Hornby has prejudices, but he manages to make his seem endearing. He prefers concision (“I am a literary fattist . . . I have had a resistance to the more amply proportioned book all my adult life”); can be harshly pedantic (“my inability to forgive negligible errors . . . is a disfiguring disease”); and is generally skeptical of the pre-modern (“my cultural blind spots have included the Romantic poets, every single bar of classical music ever written, and just about anything produced before the nineteenth century”).
Following Hornby’s instructions, we read this slender volume while soaking in the tub and emerged a bit pruney but also inspired. He’s not one of those glum literary types who lock themselves away. Hornby is a writer who travels — to Hollywood to work on a screenplay or attend the Oscars, to Cologne for a reading with Patti Smith — and he always takes a good book with him.
Some of these, like Kynaston’s meticulously researched history of Britain, we’re glad Hornby read because now we don’t feel the need to. But others, like John Williams’s novel “Stoner,” we can’t wait to pick up based on Hornby’s huzzahs. (“To my relief,” he writes, “the title turned out to refer to a surname rather than an occupation.”)
Much has changed in the world of books — Hornby laments the slow, excruciating death of independent booksellers and the rise of impersonal e-readers — but the author also gives us reason to be hopeful.
“Great writing is going on all around us,” Hornby writes, “always has done, always will.”