Posts Tagged ‘Nick Hornby’

day sixteen: more Hornby

January 16, 2017 @ 9:19 pm | Filed under:

Just a little FYI—I was poking around Amazon trying to figure out if there were any of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” collections I’d missed, and I discovered there’s now (as of 2014, so I’m way behind the times here) one big collection that includes all four of the books I’ve read—The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt (see this post), Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and More Baths Less Talking—as well as the 2012-2013 columns that came after those four. The Amazon reviews consist largely of grumping from people who ordered this master collection, Ten Years in the Tub, without realizing most of the content is recycled from the earlier collections. But I’m delighted, since this means I can stop hunting for my copy of Polysyllabic Spree, which Scott must have given me because it doesn’t show up in my shopping history.* And even better, I know I haven’t read all the 2013 columns. So: new Stuff Nick Hornby Has Been Reading! New to me, at least. Should hit my library branch this week.

In other news: I finished L’Engle’s Ilsa and have MANY THOUGHTS to share. Later. Soon.

*Ha! Per this post, Spree was a library book.

More Hornby enthusiasm in my archives:

How does he love me? Let me count the books.
Housekeeping vs. sludge.
I hope he likes pepperoni.
The trouble is, I fancy too much.

day eight: commonplace book

January 8, 2017 @ 12:26 am | Filed under:


Yesterday I picked up one of my cleaning-spree finds: Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt. Just the thing to reset my brain after Cybils reading, I thought. Hornby’s what-I’m-reading essay collections were hugely important to my reading life several years back. He was writing monthly columns about his own reading life—not reviews, but meditations and meanderings, an ongoing conversation with the books he was immersed in each month. Those essays, originally published in Believer magazine and then bundled into several print collections, struck me as wittier, more deliberate versions of the kind of book-notes I’d been casually posting here on the blog for some time. I learned pretty early in my blogging career that I don’t enjoy writing formal book reviews (worrying, as I do, that I’ll wind up at dinner someday with the author of something I gave an unfavorable review to)—what I like is having conversations about books as I’m reading them. It’s during the reading that I’m burning to talk about what’s on the page. After I finish a book, I want to cocoon with it a bit, and finding words for it feels like work.

So as I said, I had more or less figured that out within a year of blogging, and I decided to think of what I was doing here as discussing rather than reviewing—sharing my enthusiasm, thinking out loud, capturing what thoughts the book put in my head while I was reading it.

When, in March 2009, I discovered that Nick Hornby was doing something similar (albeit in a more substantive, organized fashion) in his Believer essays, I felt my own thoughts come into focus. To chronicle one’s reading life—now there’s an activity that excites me. Ms. Mental Multivitamin, then as now one of my favorite bloggers (she posts these days at Nerdishly), had been doing exactly that at M-mv for longer than I’d been blogging (and probably since before Hornby’s essay series began).

(Thinking back, it’s likely I heard about the Hornby essays from Ms. M-mv in the first place.)



When I picked up Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt yesterday, my first reaction was to chuckle over the memory of what happened when I first posted a picture of it here in April, 2009. I presented the photo as evidence of Scott’s thoughtfulness—the book appeared on our bed not long after I’d mused aloud about wanting it—and a few commenters politely wondered if my husband might perhaps be going round the bend.

Q: “Was it a hint that the house was messy, was it exactly what you wanted, or was it a way of saying it’s ok honey, I love the house just the way it is?”

Huck would have been three months old at the time, and I imagine if a book about actual housekeeping had appeared, unsolicited, on our (unmade) bed as a sort of hint that it was time to tidy things up, said book might have hit a nearby wall…or head. 😉 But that would have required an entirely different kind of book, and an altogether different sort of husband.

And so whenever I come across Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, I chuckle over the critical importance of context. Hornby’s title, of course, refers to two of the books he discusses in the volume.


And here we get to why I love to read the book-musings of other readers: because writers like Nick Hornby and Helene Hanff (O my beloved) don’t just write about the books; they write about relationship. The relationships they form with books. The ways their mental and emotional landscapes are altered by those books. There are personal connections and anecdotes; the books become a part of the reader’s history, shaping new narratives. All the books on my shelves have stories behind them, not just inside them. When I hold a volume, I’m remembering not only its contents, but where it came from and what was happening the first time I read it. Our old books, the ones we’ve hauled from house to house, state to state (uneconomically, sentimentally), contain multiple stories—their own, our family’s, and sometimes, if they came to us used, the stories of previous owners. Like Billy Collins, I’m entranced by the narratives we find in the margins:

…the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil —
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet —
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

—excerpt from “Marginalia”

When I pick up Hornby’s Housekeeping, I find it holds a piece of the congenial, bookish blog community I’ve enjoyed for so many years; and a memory of the happy jolt I felt when Scott surprised me with it; and the reading jags I went on because of Hornby’s recommendations; and the pleasure of curling up with those books while my last infant slept on the (unmade) bed beside me, in a room that existed in a state somewhere between housekeeping and the dirt.


All these associations rushed upon me before I’d even opened the book to page one this afternoon. I hit the Preface (page 11, technically) and felt immediately compelled to open the laptop and click New Post.

“I began writing this column,” Hornby writes,

“in the summer of 2003. It seemed to me that what I had chosen to read in the preceding few weeks contained a narrative, of sorts—that one book led to another, and thus themes and patterns emerged, patterns that might be worth looking at. And of course, that was pretty much the last time my reading had any kind of logic or shape to it. Ever since then my choice of books has been haphazard, whimsical, and entirely shapeless.”

You see why I love him.

“It still seemed like a fun thing to do, though, writing about reading, as opposed to writing about individual books. At the beginning of my writing career I reviewed a lot of fiction, but I had to pretend, as reviewers do, that I had read the books outside of space, time, and self—in other words, I had to pretend that I hadn’t read them when I was tired and grumpy, or drunk, that I wasn’t envious of the author, that I had no agenda, no personal aesthetic or personal taste or personal problems, that I hadn’t read other reviews of the same book already, that I didn’t know who the author’s friends and enemies were, that I wasn’t trying to place a book with the same publisher, that I hadn’t been bought lunch by the book’s doe-eyed publicist….”

“But this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather, or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”

Which is exactly what brings me back to these essays, time and again. And to other chroniclers of the reading life. Give me your moods, your weather, your family history, your ‘tired or grumpy or drunk.’ Give me the reader as well as the book. In the end, that’s my favorite genre, whatever it’s called.

Why we read

January 26, 2014 @ 8:39 am | Filed under: , ,

Surely we all occasionally buy books because of a daydream we’re having—a little fantasy about the people we might turn into one day, when our lives are different, quieter, more introspective, and when all the urgent reading, whatever that might be, has been done. We never arrive at that point needless to say…

More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

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This Just In

May 16, 2010 @ 10:44 am | Filed under:

Via Omnivoracious:

Nick Hornby resurrects his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer (subscription only): “I have decided to vent my spleen by embarking on a series of books that, I hope, will be of no interest whatsoever to the readership of this magazine.” [via The Second Pass]

Looks like The Believer has just earned itself another subscriber. I. Am. So. Excited. To hear this news. I got hooked (via a Mental Multivitamin post) on Hornby’s column about his eclectic reading life not long before the column went away, breaking my heart into forlorn little pieces. Fortunately, the entire run of  “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” was collected into three separate books—The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Moneyeach of which was given to me as a sweet surprise by my indulgent and tolerant husband, the Scotch tape who holds together all the pieces of my heart. (It belongs to him, after all. I suppose he has incentive for keeping it in one piece.)

And now it’s back? O joy! O rapture! (I always think I am quoting Pudd’nhead Wilson when I say that, but now it occurs to me it may actually be the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Or else a Gilbert & Sullivan song. Huh.)

Anyway. This is excellent news for those of us who enjoy reading about other people’s reading lives. Which I emphatically do.

Especially when they chronicle them with as much wit and insight as Hornby does. Confer:

How does he love me? Let me count the books.

Housekeeping vs. sludge.

I hope he likes pepperoni.

The trouble is, I fancy too much.

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.

Who, me, prone to hyperbole? I haven’t the faintest, slightest, teeniest crumb of a morsel of an idea what you’re talking about.

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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.

Books Read in March

March 31, 2009 @ 10:22 am | Filed under: ,


Little Brother and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. (Blogged about Down & Out here.)
The Sisters” by James Joyce.
Damosel: In Which the Lady of the Lake Renders a Frank and Often Startling Account of her Wondrous Life and Times by Stephanie Spinner.
The Film Club: A Memoir by David Gilmour.
Stolen by Vivian Vande Velde. (Notes.)
Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor by Mike Costa and Fiona Staples.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman. (Notes.)
Rules by Cynthia Lord. (Notes.)
The Plain Princess by Phyllis McGinley.
The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope. (Review.)
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby.

spreeHmm, almost all fiction this month, except for Film Club and the Hornby book. I knew it was a mistake to pick up the Hornby; The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of Nick Hornby’s monthly books column for The Believer. Nick writes exactly the kind of essays I love to read—and write, for that matter—conversational ruminations on the books he has read, or purchased and not read, or thought about reading, in the previous month. Here I am already with a house full of books whispering my name in rustling voices, and a list of ooh-gotta-score-a-copy-of-that-one titles gleaned from sources like last year’s favorite book-essay collection, A Reader’s Delight, and now, stupidly, I’ve gone and let Nick Hornby get me all fired up to read a bunch of the books he read in 2004.

Even worse, there are two more volumes of these Hornby columns, and of course I’m dying to read those too. And the library doesn’t have them. If I spend money (or even Amazon gift certificate dough) to buy more books about books I’ll then want to buy, somebody please hit me over the head with a copy of Home Comforts.

film-clubI enjoyed Film Club but I think I had a hard time letting it be the book it IS instead of the book I thought it was going to be (or the book I wanted it to be). It’s the true account of how film critic David Gilmour made a deal with his teenaged son: Jesse, a 10th grader, could drop out of school on the condition that he’d watch three movies a week with his dad. I heard about this book and immediately pegged it as kind of unschooling manifesto, full of anecdotes about the amazing learning experiences and deepened relationships that grew out of this family’s unorthodox decision. And the book IS about learning and about deepened relationships, but not at all in the way I imagined; it isn’t waving a banner for autodidactism or alternative education. It isn’t putting forth a thesis or advocating a philosophy: it is exactly what it claims to be: a memoir, a true account of a few years in the life of a father and son. Gilmour recognizes that these years with Jesse, the last years of Jesse’s residency under his father’s roof, are a treasure to be cherished, and his movie-viewing plan is more about spending time together than education. Both father and son DO learn a lot, of course. David chooses the films carefully, sometimes focusing on landmarks of cinematic history, other times riffing on the dramas of Jesse’s personal life. (Lots of girl stuff going on with the boy, to put it mildly.)

Once I got a handle on what the book was and let it be itself instead of the unschooling celebration I expected it to be, I enjoyed the book a whole lot (though Gilmour and I come from very different places regarding certain moral issues). Mostly I wanted to hear more about the films: the best parts of the book are the conversations between David and Jesse about the films, and most especially David’s commentary during the films. I am now dying to see James Dean in Giant.

damoselI’ve already written about most of the fiction I read in March. It was a great month for fiction. I really enjoyed Damosel, an Arthurian romance by my former boss, Stephanie Spinner. Stephanie has kindly agreed to let me interview her here on the blog and I’m pretty excited about that. Damosel is lyrical and lovely, and I love the way it takes a minor figure from the Arthurian legend and expands her, lets us look at some old familiar tales from a completely fresh perspective. (I don’t think I’ve ever felt the tragedy of Merlin’s fate quite so keenly.) Who was that mysterious Lady presenting Excalibur from the murky depths of the Lake? In the legend she is little more than an arm. Stephanie made her a whole person, a complicated person with conflicts and yearnings, powers and limits. There is such an air of wistfulness about the book, as the fairy Lady looks upon the intrigues of mortals first from a cool distance, and then increasingly with an emotional connection to the people she once regarded with comfortable detachment. But it’s a funny book, too, very wry, and the Lady’s innumerable Rules—the Rules governing the behavior of Ladies of the Lake—made me laugh out loud more than once.