Archive for April 18th, 2009

The Trouble Is, I Fancy Too Much

April 18, 2009 @ 8:39 pm | Filed under: ,

(This post is a follow-up to this one.)

Ah, now we’re coming to it. I’ve reached the essay in which Nick Hornby includes a novel called Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson in his list of books he purchased that month. This is bound to be the Housekeeping that takes on The Dirt in the title of his essay collection. But I don’t know anything more about it yet because he didn’t actually read the book that month. We’ll have to live in suspense a while longer.

The “Books I Bought This Month” lists are one of the things I love about these essays. Hornby begins each column with side-by-side listings of books bought and books read, on the premise that the books you want to read, intend to read, go so far as to purchase in order to read, say as much or possibly even more about you as what books you actually do read. He explored this idea in a thoughtful passage I would like to quote, but five minutes ago Scott left for the library and The Polysyllabic Spree is, alas, mine no more. I mean, it was never mine at all, but I loved it well during its tenancy under this roof. Laid it tenderly upon a tasseled velvet pillow when home duties forced me to turn away from its enchanting pages for a while.

Okay, maybe I’m laying it on a teeny bit thick. It’s just that after inviting Nick Hornby over for pizza, I went and ran off at the mouth about not liking the plot of a movie based on one of his books, and (insult to injury) not even having read the book to see if the plot is better executed in prose. It probably is. I mean, I feel no guilt over not having read all his books—after all, I’m quite sure he’s never read any of mine. We can’t all read everything, can we? I’m thinking my stuff is a wee bit outside his preferred genres. For example, I happen to know he has read Man on the Moon at least sixty times. (Cf. Housekeeping vs. the Dirt p. 34.) I’ve never written a word about astronauts, so you see how it is. So no haven’t-read-yet guilt (the yet is key: I’m sure I will someday; I am always stubbornly, delusionally optimistic about the likelihood of my getting around, eventually, to everything on my mental TBR list), but it’s probably bad form to invite someone to dinner and in the next breath start picking apart the themes of his books which you haven’t even read. Hence the velvet pillow for the books I have read.

It was nice to see, in H. v. the D., that Hornby agrees with me about the no-guilt-over-unread-books thing. About reading the classics, he says,

“There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you’re a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I’m beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they’re a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy.”

Nonetheless, Hornby does seem to experience a fair amount of angst over books he meant to get to but didn’t and probably never will. When moving house he suffers the pangs of the book-hoarder, pangs I know all too well: there is nothing like filling up boxes with books you haven’t read yet to stir up a whirlpool of reader’s agony, the swirling currents of longing and remorse. When we were getting ready to leave Virginia and I had movers come in to give us estimates, one guy who’d been in the business for twenty-five years told me he’d never seen anyone planning to move that many books before. And this was after I’d shed a good 25% of our collection. When you’re going to be charged by the pound, those are scary words to hear. I did some more purging before the truck actually arrived, but still. We’ve got a ridiculous number of books here, and it would be swell if I, you know, actually read them someday.

Well, Nick Hornby and his recommendations aren’t helping. Neither are all those intelligent book blogs out there. I read a post today about the most recent A. S. Byatt and it was like a knife in my heart. I don’t know how I managed it, but I forgot about Byatt. Possession is one of my favorite books of all time, top five material, no question. Angels and Insects was spoiled for me by the movie (saw it first; big mistake) and the short story collection, Sugar, left me flat. But that was almost ten years ago. She has at least half a dozen novels I haven’t read yet. How could I forget her? Seriously, I’m baffled. So now I’ve got the urge to chuck my whole TBR pile and go on a mad Byatt binge.

Except that three more reserved books came in from the library today. (Gilead—which I heard about on Semicolon, I think, and was amused to see in one of Hornby’s booklists during the very same hour in which Scott was picking up my holds at the library—and The Graveyard Book and Olive Kitteridge. I don’t remember a thing about that last one, not even who recommended it.) Plus there’s the Benedict Society sequel and another Jane recommendation called Chasing Vermeer. And then—talk about guilt—this terrifying tower of review copies I’m supposed to read and say insightful things about.

Oh, it’s hopeless, isn’t it. Agony. And at the very same time, deliciously, satisfyingly tantalizing, like the hour before you sit down to Thanksiving dinner and the kitchen is full of good smells driving you crazy.

I Hope He Likes Pepperoni

April 18, 2009 @ 6:42 am | Filed under: ,

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.