Nick Hornby’s voice on the page is so companionable — so friendly, unpretentious, funny and effortlessly charming (without calling attention to the charm, which is a real art) — that he wins hands-down my award for Writer I’d Most Like To Sit In A Pub, Drink A Bunch of Scotch and Talk About Books, Records, Movies and Women With. Hornby wrote High Fidelity and About A Boy, two of the sweetest, most sensitively honest, and Salingerish novels of the 1990s — everybody invokes Salinger when somebody writes a novel written from a vulnerable male point of view, but Hornby’s one of the few who really earns the association. He wrote Songbook, a lovely collection of short essays about pop songs that manages to embrace Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird” (too embarrassing for most of us to admit we liked) as much as it does Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”(safe critical ground). In a cool bit of synchronicity, I just opened up The Gaslight Anthem’s new CD, Handwritten — a potent blast of neo-Springsteenian rock by the way — and saw that Hornby had written the liner notes. Hornby’s voice is so convincing, in fact, that if he turned out not to be the unpretentious charmer he comes across as — that is, if he was faking — you’d be really pissed off. Luckily, I’ve met the man, and he’s not faking: He exudes decency, modesty and an open-hearted sense of humor that’s never mean-spirited. Most of the time the butt of his jokes is himself. Bartender, another round.
His latest book, More Baths Less Talking, is a collection of 15 2,000-word essays he wrote for his column in The Believer called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” between May 2010 and December 2011. Each column begins with two lists: one a list of books he bought that month and the other a list of books he actually read. The first list is usually longer than the second, which is your first clue, if you haven’t read him before, that you’ve got an honest writer on your hands. By my count, he read 55 books over a 20-month period, plus four books he started but never finished. He gets into a minor Muriel Spark obsession (which fizzles quickly — two of the four books he doesn’t finish are hers), deals strenuously with Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend because he’s been contracted to write an intro for a new edition (which I’d love to see, because he loves Dickens but finds that Our Mutual Friend bores him to death) and occasionally dabbles with classic writers (Twain, Montaigne). But mostly he reads contemporary stuff, with nonfiction slightly tipping the scales over fiction.
I’ve only read three of the 55 books, but he made me want to read at least 20 of them — even the Lucille Ball biography and the book about how terrible life is in North Korea. He doesn’t write reviews, exactly — he’s generous to a fault (he likes almost everything except John Updike’s Marry Me, whose sexual excesses he lampoons hilariously), makes no attempt to be comprehensive and basically tells you what interested him the most, what he learned from the book that’s contributed to the ongoing self-education that is his life. What’s most likeable about the book, though, is how he sneaks in details about his family (“long slow books can have a disastrous, demoralizing effect on your cultural life if you have young children”), or his marriage (“my own marital problems lie beyond the reach of any self-help book available in a bookstore, or even on Amazon. They also lie beyond the reach of pills and tears, but perhaps I have said too much”), or the early education that’s made him so modest and unpretentious (“I didn’t want to read or listen to anything that anybody in any position of educational authority told me to” and “Those who cling to the cultural touchstones of an orthodox education are frequently smug, lazy, and intellectually timid — after all, someone else has made all their cultural decisions for them”). By the way, that last quote is the closest he comes to bitter in the whole book, the slightly steely statement of a middle-class Brit who had to fight his way into the aristocratic reaches of Cambridge University and London’s literary life.
If there’s anything to quibble with in Hornby’s book, it’s that his very affability sometimes leads him to go too easy on books, even on himself. His early disgust with fusty academics makes him reluctant to engage in levels of analysis that those academics happen to be good at, and it keeps him from going deeper into ideas than he does. He’s never complacent, but his charm sometimes hides a streak of laziness, and you want to get him to think harder, go to the end of an idea. I hesitate to even bring it up with my imaginary drinking buddy, but then again, that’s what buddies are for. Anyway, deep in his cups, Hornby knows all this, and vows to do better. That’s the kind of guy he is.
MORE BATHS LESS TALKING Nick Hornby, Believer Books, 135 pages