So I’m halfway through Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, my new collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books and reading. I haven’t yet come to the bit I assume will be there, a passage or series of passages illuminating the title—you know, the name that made everyone think my husband was taking his life into his hands by leaving the book on my pillow as a sort of gentle hint. (NB: Scott would be the last man on earth to do such a thing. He was a stay-at-home dad for eight years: he knows what it takes to run this place.)
In The Polysyllabic Spree, the first book in this series of essays, the Spree of the title is a running gag, Hornby’s tongue-in-cheek references to the editors of his literary column, whom he describes (in Housekeeping, where the Spree continue to make appearances) as “the fifty-five disturbingly rapturous and rapturously disturbing young men and women who edit the Believer.” (In reality, there are two editors, and it’s obvious Hornby thinks highly of them both.) The Spree made repeated appearances in the batch of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns that were collected in the book that bears their name, each mention more ridiculous and far-fetched than the last, and they’re back in full force in the second collection of columns. (There’s a third volume in the series: Shakespeare Wrote for Money. I expect it’ll turn up in a Christmas stocking one of these years.)
Nick Hornby is one of those rare writers who makes me literally laugh out loud. I’m sure it’s quite annoying to be in the same room with me when I’m reading one of his books. Even more annoyingly, I can’t help but read out passages to Scott or Jane or anyone passing through the room. (Huck has been known to burst into tears after the first sentence, but Mr. Hornby shouldn’t take it personally. After all, Huck still finds his own fingers vaguely alarming.)
Nick Hornby also makes me really, really want to read a lot of books. He writes so engagingly about the books he’s reading that you can’t help it, you want to read them yourself. And then you’d like to have him over for pizza and a nice long confab about where he was completely off base, and where he steered you correctly. I have this persistent and somewhat adolescent notion that Nick Hornby and Scott would really hit it off. They’re both readers and thinkers, both full of snark. And I do very well in conversations populated by that sort of person. Also they’ve been linked in my mind for a very long time, ever since Scott and I saw the movie High Fidelity, which was based on Hornby’s novel of the same name. (The film starred John Cusack, and he too is someone I’m convinced would enjoy our company. Also his sister Joan, and Jack Black, both of whom appeared with Cusack in High Fidelity. Also Wil Wheaton. Also Steve from Blue’s Clues. But not Joe.)
A passage in Polysyllabic Spree illustrates exactly why High Fidelity linked Scott and Nick (I can call him Nick, can’t I? Since we’re having pizza together?) in my mind. He’s talking about a book he’d just read, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and how he was enjoying the book until—
“a character starts talking about football. He tells a teaching colleague that he’s been to see Arsenal, and that ‘Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0.’ Readers of this column will have realized by now that I know almost nothing about anything, but if I were forced to declare one area of expertise, it would be what people say to each other after football matches. It’s not much, I know, but it’s mine. And I am positive that no one has ever said ‘Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0’ in the entire history of either Arsenal Football Club or the English language. ‘Beat,’ ‘thrashed,’ ‘did or done,’ ‘trounced,’ ‘thumped’—”
—he goes on in this vein a while, and asserts that no one would ever, ever use the word “won” in that context, and that furthermore, “Arsenal haven’t beaten Liverpool 3-0 at Highbury since 1991. What chance,” he asks regarding the author’s likelihood of winning him over as a reader, “did the poor woman have?”
By the end of this passage, I’m sure I had a very silly grin on my face, it tickled me so. Because, you see, there’s this bit in High Fidelity. John Cusack plays a guy who owns a record shop, and Jack Black works there and is very snobby about whom he’ll sell certain records to; you have to be worthy of the music and your worth is proved by your opinions about other music. These record shop guys are the kind of people who know every detail there is to know about the content and production of the entire body of work of pretty much every band ever. And at one point in the movie, John Cusack puts a Springsteen album on a record player, and carefully sets the needle onto the first track, and “The River” begins to play. And in the movie theater when we saw this film in college, Scott leaned over and whispered to me: “That’s the wrong track. It’s the last song on the second side of the first LP.” And I was filled with an enormous and terrible affection for him that has not abated one iota in all these years.
So that’s why I think Scott and Nick Hornby would get along. They understand being passionate about a thing, and that God is in the details.
I have to send Spree back to the library tomorrow. I’ve been holding on to it because I want to make a list of the books it made me want to read. And I thought this post was going to be a list of those books, but it turned out to be something else. It’s too long a list, anyway. I remember George and Sam, a book about author Charlotte Moore’s two autistic sons (which resonated with Hornby, I mean Nick, because he also has a child with autism), and a Robert Lowell biography, and there were about twenty others. But perhaps it’s a little too meta to write about the many books this one book made me want to read, and why. You’re much better off getting it directly from the horse’s mouth.
I hope Nick Hornby won’t be annoyed that I called him a horse. With luck he’ll have forgotten about it by the time he comes over for pizza.
Hey! Listen to This!
I don’t know what it is but I want one.
From the Archives: The Firelings by Carol Kendall