When Salman Rushdie published a collection of essays, he called it Imaginary Homelands. Graham Swift went for the semi-comic Making an Elephant. Jonathan Franzen preferred the plangent How to Be Alone.
Whether you find Nick Hornby’s cheery, down-home title Stuff I’ve Been Reading hearteningly unpretentious or ever so slightly bogus will be a good indicator as to whether you will enjoy his book. A collection of columns written between 2006 and 2011 for the hip American cultural magazine the Believer, it takes us on a hazy, entertaining and sometimes irritating journey through the private book-buying, and book-reading habits, of an intelligent and curious reader.
In many ways, Hornby is a perfect host, occupying as he does an odd position on the cultural scene. His books have deservedly won prizes, and yet he clearly regards himself as something of an outsider. He loses few opportunities to snipe at literary novels. If a World Cup is on TV or he is on holiday with the children, he will cheerfully admit that he has read virtually nothing during the month. Unlike other authors who drop names from pop culture to ratchet up their credibility – take a bow, Sir Salman – he writes of music, football and TV with natural enthusiasm. He is the reader’s pal.
As a monthly column, Stuff I’ve Been Reading is terrific – funny, discursive and wide-ranging. A biography of Lucille Ball can be followed by a study of North Korea, and then Huckleberry Finn. A book, though, is different. The same running jokes or lovingly nurtured prejudices which return like old friends in a monthly column quickly begin to grate over 250 pages.
Any interesting person who has been around for a while will be chippy about this and that, but Hornby rides his hobby-horses into the ground. Literary novels are written boringly in order to win prizes, apparently. A writer who dares to criticise him is “one of those scary critics who write for the serious magazines”. He refuses to read a novel because its author is “posh”, explaining his position with a Spartish rant about class. Huckleberry Finn is dismissed with “Meh.” An average Simpsons episode is “of course, smarter than the average Flaubert novel.” These opinions often sit uneasily with the basic credo of Believer features: only critical enthusiasm is permitted. The result is a weird coyness when Hornby feels less than enthusiastic. Names are not named.
In yet another extended moan about serious fiction, he pokes fun at an unnamed “highly regarded literary figure” in whose novel there appears the line: “A perfect day begins in death, in the semblance of death, in deep surrender.” Cue a Hornby riff: “Not for me, it doesn’t, pal”, and off he goes. It is a cheap shot, more unfair to the author than an honest trashing. Reading the much-mocked sentence in its context – it is from James Salter’s Light Years – reveals that it is actually rather good and moving.Other oddities emerge in this collection: the need to plug every single novel written by his brother-in-law, Robert Harris, a certain nagging boastfulness about his own life and friends.
Of course, it is all carried off with self-effacing humour, but sometimes this most charming and least snobbish of writers can come across as slightly smug.
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