Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #85: Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

It can be difficult going back to being just an amateur reader after doing it professionally. I know that from my own life: I spent a decade and a half reading as part of my job, and the seven years since slowly turning this blog into a free facsimile of what I used to do for pay.

You see, there are several tiers of readers. At the bottom, outside the tiers entirely, are those who never read books -- not because they can't (the illiterate aren't part of the equation at all), but because they don't. They might be perfectly good people otherwise -- giving to charity, loving with their families and communities, holding sensible political positions -- but they're just Not Our Sort, are they?

The first circle of readers is the Amused: they read for their own enjoyment, and nothing more. They are the largest circle, and the only ones entirely happy. For that, the rest of us look down on them, because we envy them.

Above them, the next smaller circle is the Improvers, who read to make themselves better, either by self-help books or Great Modern Novels or computer programming manuals or glittery books that promise to improve their business acumen. And then, the smallest and most tormented group is the Explainers, who read so that other people can understand.

I was an Explainer as a living for a long time, and I've got strong Explainer tendencies. Luckily, these days, we can all be Explainers if we want to be: the Internet is wide and open, and anyone can open a storefront and vend opinions. But being an amateur Explainer isn't the same at all: there's massive validation in being paid for those opinions, getting freelance payments and salaries and performance bonuses based on how well you read and explained.

As an Explainer, I claim immense powers to define and delineate, to put things carefully into the boxes I insist are exactly the right sizes for them: it's what Explainers do. And so I'm sure I know how Nick Hornby felt when The Believer magazine asked him -- a noted British novelist in his middle years, who used to review for the London papers fairly regularly, but had given it up -- to contribute a monthly column called "Stuff I've Been Reading." The Believer's insistence on only positive reviews must have seemed like the most comfortable straitjacket ever, stripping away the instinctive back-biting of the British literary press and assuaging a writer's ever-present fear of fatally insulting someone inadvertently.

And so Hornby came to write that column: not every month The Believer published, and with a year-and-a-half gap in the middle, but pretty regularly for the space of a decade. During that time, he wrote two novels, Slam (see my review) and Juliet, Naked (see, um, my to-be-read shelf, which I expect Hornby would sympathize with). The former novel impinges slightly on his columns, since it introduced him to the world of contemporary YA fiction, but the writing of both is entirely absent, as is even the title of the latter. "Stuff I've Been Reading" kept tightly to its matter: Hornby didn't use it as an excuse to rattle on about politics, or his family, but glancingly bounced off those things and other topics to settle firmly in the literary world for a couple of thousand words each month.

Those columns -- all of them from September 2003 through June 2013 -- were collected as Ten Years in the Tub, published just in time for Christmas last year, perhaps as a gift for that friend who has already read everything and needs more suggestions. There were smaller collections along the way, though: The Polysyllabic Spree, which was one of the initial inspirations for this blog, back in 2005; Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, which was Day 109 of my very first Book-A-Day stint here, in 2006; Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which I've never seen in the wild; and More Baths Less Talking, which I tossed into a monthly round-up last year. Ten Years includes everything in those books, including Hornby's introduction to Housekeeping, and adds about another book of that length to the end out of the most recent eighteen months of his columns, plus an introduction by novelist Jess Walter.

You may have noticed I'm not saying much about the columns themselves: that's out of self-preservation, to keep the Lovecraftian spectre of eternal recursion away. Reviewing a book of book reviews -- that's where the many-angled ones lurk.

But I can say that each column begins with two lists: books bought and books read. And then Hornby explains what was good or interesting in those books he read, occasionally giving more details on how he came to buy some of the books in the first list as well. Ten Years contains nothing at all like a formal book review, and it's stronger and more appealing to read because of that.

Hornby is just as colloquial and flowing a writer in nonfiction as he is in his novels, making each column a joy to read for anyone who loves books. The cliche is true: his matter-of-face, confessional voice does make each column read like a story told by a friend, telling just you about some books that he's just read. All of Hornby's enthusiasms will not be yours, no matter who you are: the vast majority of us will never care about the Arsenal football club a hundredth as much as he does. But they're all authentic enthusiasms, and they all express themselves here through books and reading, in a style that will send any decent reader scrambling for a scrap of paper to write down a few titles.

In short, Hornby is one of the world's great Explainers. And Ten Years has over four hundred and fifty pages stuffed full of his engrossing, idiosyncratic, down-to-earth explanations: a treasure trove for anyone who ever thought "what should I read next?"

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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