I picked up Hornby‘s book because I want his job. I don’t mean that purchasing a collection of Believer columns is the official first step in applying, but I just like seeing how other people talk books, in case things they do are worth emulating/avoiding/envying.
(He doesn’t write Polysyllabic Spree anymore, and Shakespeare Wrote For Money is its final compilation, which makes these columns feel… a bit ghostly. But I got that same sensation twofold from one of David Foster Wallace’s essay collections, one I’ll be talking about very soon.)
Here’s Hornby’s setup, a thing I envy: for each month’s entry he compiles a list of Books Bought (usually half a dozen, give or take) and a list of Books Read (usually Books Bought minus two), and then he goes on for five pages writing pretty much what he feels like, often involving the Books Read for good measure. I knew I was sampling something very unique when I came to his column of September 2006, for which he read nothing. Not a book (but he did buy two). I also learned just how British he was—his excuse for the illiterate August was the World Cup.
I wish I were present for the discussion over that column.
Editors of Believer: So what have you got for us this month?
Hornby: I didn’t read anything.
Believer: Oh! Well… was it to work on your novel? Or—
Hornby: No. I just watched football all month.
Believer: Really? Oh, that’s right, you’re English! Yeah, wow, the World Cup! Wasn’t that something?
Hornby: I’m going to just write about football.
Believer: No, that’s totally cool, Nick. Write about football, er, soccer, er—football. Go for it.
For all of Hornby’s experience in the fiction and film and music industries, it’s a bloody wonder he’s not sounding jaded as he weighs in on them. He’s laid-back—even plucky at times.
With only a couple exceptions, Hornby apparently operates under the dictum that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. All that seems to matter is highlighting good literature as opposed to condemning the offenders. But I can’t help feeling like he’s keeping things from me. I know you got to select all the books that month, Nick, but surely you didn’t enjoy all of them? (C’mon, we’re friends, Nick. Tell me, which one was crap? You’d better say or else I might read it.)
I almost wished I hadn’t bought Shakespeare Wrote For Money when I took a closer look and saw that of the books he reviewed, I’d only heard of 30% of them, and read maybe 5%. Which is why I spent the first half-hour with it leaping the pages from one familiar name to another. The most notable of these was McCarthy’s The Road, which he (of course) thought was brilliant. He describes it as a “miserable book” in the most positive terms, but miserable nonetheless:
Reading The Road is rather like attending the beautiful funeral of someone who has died young. You’re happy the ceremony seems to be going so well, and you’ll remember the experience for the rest of your life, but the truth is that you’d rather not be there at all.
Then there’s the month where he just reviews movies! Okay. And says things like The Simpsons Movie
was as good as, but no better than, three average Simpsons episodes bolted together—an average Simpsons episode being, of course, smarter than an average Flaubert novel.
Yes, I do want Nick Hornby’s job, and yes, I realize that I don’t get to have it unless I become a successful novelist and one of the voices of a generation. I’ll find my own way to that, eventually. Once I’ve published my futuristic-zombie sequel to Madame Bovary, that’ll have been step one.