Friday, November 23, 2012

Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading"

Every time I pick up a Nick Hornby book I'm reminded how pleasurable it is to read him. His style is straightforward and unpretentious, he's disarming in his willingness to say what he thinks, even if it's uncool, and he's got an offhand, self-deprecating sense of humor. Reading one of his "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns for The Believer is like having a great conversation with a friend over a beer.

So why did I feel a hint of reluctance every time I thought about picking up a volume of his columns (published by Believer Books as The Polysyllabic Spree (2004), Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (2006), Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008), and More Baths Less Talking (2012))? After all, I can honestly say that I've enjoyed everything of his I've ever read, although my favorite of his books remains the first one I encountered, High Fidelity (Riverhead, 1995). When he published Songbook (McSweeney's, 2002), a series of essays about his favorite songs (at least, of the moment), I even wrote an "answer book" about my favorite opera arias.

But somehow I didn't overcome my hesitation until last week, when I heard Judson True's interview with him on NPR's City Arts & Lectures program and enjoyed it so much I sought out The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (Penguin, 2006, a compilation of the first two titles in the series). I immediately followed it with the remaining two.

I think there were a couple of reasons for my hesitation. Partly it was because, as appealing as I find Hornby's voice on the page (or the radio), our tastes don't always completely coincide—except when they do, and then I'm disappointed. Of course I recognize that these are contradictory objections; clearly, I can't be satisfied. And since I was having these feelings before I even took the trouble to read the books, they're doubly unfair. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that what I want from a collection of book reviews is a sense of discovery, not a discussion of books I doubt I'll ever read or a confirmation of my own taste. And it seems that I didn't feel confident enough that Hornby's columns would provide that sense of discovery.

As it turned out, they largely don't. So I wouldn't recommend picking up his collected columns to learn about some overlooked masterpiece or neglected minor classic; at least for me, they mostly didn't work that way. What they do, very entertainingly, is give a picture of Hornby's own reading habits: his tendencies to buy more books than he can read (there's a list of "books bought" and "books read" every month), to forget the books he's already read with alarming alacrity, to attempt to read while other distractions surround him, and finally to abandon books that aren't giving him sufficient pleasure, even if he's "supposed" to read them.

With his unflinching and at times very funny honesty about his own modes of reading—and no one would bother to fabricate stories about this stuff—Hornby wins my sympathy and frequent identification. And although I've had mixed luck with his book recommendations, there's nothing mixed about how enjoyable his columns are. 

Who are the Polysyllabic Spree?

A running joke in Hornby's columns is that he can't pan any of the books he reads, because a fluctuating group of humorless young editors he calls the Polysyllabic Spree, all dressed in white robes, polices The Believer for negative reviews. (One of the founding editors, Heidi Julavits, wrote a famous statement of principle for the first issue that established an editorial policy against critical snarkiness.) Whenever Hornby's column skips a month or two, he claims that it's because he's been suspended for trangressing this policy (I'm guessing he's really on a book tour).

What I hadn't realized before I Googled was that the description of the Polysyllabic Spree is based on the Texas band Polyphonic Spree, a fluctuating group of musicians and singers who performed in white robes. Here's the Polyphonic Spree's version of Nirvana's "Lithium":

The robes, the earnestness, the slightly self-conscious hair-tossing, and the special emphasis given to the line "I found God" (0:44 and 3:15) offer more than a hint of Christian rock, or, at least, rock by Christians. And in this context the lines "I'm so horny / That's OK my will is good...I'm not gonna crack" come to seem like they're about a group abstinence pledge, or something.

I don't want to be too hard on these guys; my problem with the Polyphonic Spree is less their implied religiosity than their fresh-scrubbed optimism. I don't turn to rock music to see people who are better adjusted, more wholesome, and having more fun than I am. Where is the rage, the pain, the fear, the self-laceration, and the compelling spectacle of decadent self-destruction that all of your finest rock bands display in such abundance?

Reading as an addiction
The last time I was here, I promised to return to Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, which I hadn't quite finished. Well, I finished it, and liked it (although not as much as I liked Empire Falls, which is an all-time favorite), and no longer feel competent to write about it. I started it on a sun-lounger in France, and it's now November, and Lou "Lucy" Lynch and his careful, gentle ruminations seem a lifetime ago. The same goes for Paul Zindel's The Pigman, this month's YA experience—I know I read it, but I'm not entirely sure I could tell you an awful lot about it. Maybe I should have done my book report the moment I finished it.

I recently discovered that when my friend Mary has finished a book, she won't start another for a couple of days—she wants to give her most recent reading experience a little more time to breathe, before it's suffocated by the next. This makes sense, and it's an entirely laudable policy, I think. Those of us who read neurotically, however—to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our impending deaths—can't afford the time. (January 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 97)

I feel a bit like this (and like Francis Spufford, whose knotty memoir The Child That Books Built is discussed in Hornby's February 2008 column): as I wrote in 7 things about me, "I get anxious when I finish a book and don't have another one that I can begin immediately. Perhaps that explains why I'm a bookseller who's in library school—I'll go to any lengths to insure a continuous supply!" Spufford attributes his early development of a reading habit to needing a refuge from an outer world that contained too many unresolvable difficulties. While I've experienced my share of pain and confusion, my love of books stems from the sheer childhood pleasure of being read to by my mother. That may make me less profound than Spufford; on the other hand, once I've finished a book, until I've got a new one I feel like a caged rat desperately pressing a bar for a reward and coming up empty.

The downside of motivating by bribery
I turned back to Spufford's book [The Child That Books Built] because my five-year-old is on the verge of reading...Writing hasn't softened for him: three-letter words are as insoluble as granite, and he can no more look through writing than he can look through his bedroom wall. The good news is that he's almost frenetically motivated; the bad news is that he is so eager to learn because he has got it into his head that he will be given a Nintendo DS machine when he can read and write, which he argues that he can do now to his own satisfaction—he can write his own name, and read the words Mum, Dad, Spider, Man, and at least eight others. As far as he is concerned, literacy is something that he can dispense with altogether in a couple of months, when the Nintendo turns up. It will have served its purpose. (February 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 102-103)

On "age-appropriate" viewing
There were two visits to cinemas this month, a family outing to see The Simpsons Movie, and a rare adults-only evening out for Juno. I can tell you little about The Simpsons Movie because—and I'm not big enough to resist naming names—Mila Douglas, five-year-old best friend of my middle son, was scared of it, and as her parents weren't with her, it was me that had to keep taking her out into the foyer, where she made a miraculous and immediate recovery every time. Scared! Of the Simpsons! I will cheerfully admit that I have failed as a father in pretty much every way bar one: my boys have been trained ruthlessly to watch whatever I make them watch. They won't flinch for a second, no matter who is being disemboweled on the screen in front of them. Mila (who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a girl) has, by contrast, clearly been "well brought up," by parents who "care," and who probably "think" about what is "age-appropriate." Yeah, well. What good did that do her on a afternoon excursion with the Hornby family? (March/April 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 113-114)

One night, years ago, when the son of some dear friends of ours was seven, I suggested capping a day that had featured a highly popular visit to the dinosaur exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences with a viewing of King Kong (1933), a movie that I remembered featured some dinosaur scenes.

"Is it violent?" asked one of the concerned parents.

"King Kong? No, it's not violent," I confidently assured them.

No, it's not violent. The scene where a carnivorous brontosaur devours screaming, terrified men isn't violent. The scene where Kong vanquishes a T. Rex by forcing its jaws open until gouts of black blood gush out isn't violent (judge for yourself!). The scene where Kong hurls an elevated train full of panicking commuters to the street isn't violent. And the scene where planes strafe Kong with machine-gun fire as he clings to the spire of the Empire State Building isn't violent. (Not to mention that the scenes of the "natives" on Skull Island don't indulge in any offensive racial stereotyping, either.)

"It's OK, 'cause this is just make-believe—right, Mom?" my wide-eyed seven-year-old victim kept asking. Fortunately, despite the years of nightmares that must have afflicted their son after that night, my friends have forgiven me. I think.

On ignoring the big picture for the nagging detail
[Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin] is a rich, warm, deeply felt and imagined book, destined, I think, to be loved for a long time. Regrettably, however, McCann makes a very small mistake relating to popular music toward the beginning, and, as has happened so many times before, I spent way too long muttering at both the novel and the author. I must stress, once again—because this has come up before—that my inability to forgive negligible errors of this kind is a disfiguring disease, and I am determined to find a cure for it; I mention it here merely to explain why a book I liked a lot has not become a book that I have bought over and over again, to press on anybody who happens to be passing by. And it would be unforgivably small-minded to go into it... Ach. Donovan wasn't an Irish folk-singer, OK? He was a Scottish hippie, and I hate myself. (January 2011, More Baths Less Talking, p. 69)

I have my own experience of a minor detail poisoning the experience of a novel. In Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000), a character decides to perform a Houdini-like escape from the frigid, swiftly flowing waters of the Vltava:
Josef held up a long, glinting glass wand and brandished it as Kornblum himself might have done.

"A thermometer," he said.

"What for? Whose temperature are you going to take?"

"The river's," Josef said.

At four o’clock on the morning of Friday, September 27, 1935, the temperature of the water of the River Moldau, black as a church bell and ringing against the stone embankment at the north end of Kampa Island, stood at 22.2 ° on the Celsius scale... (p. 31)

Um, wait a minute. Chabon goes to a lot of trouble to establish the precise water temperature. He has Josef find a thermometer and bring it with him to the bank of the river, because he wants to establish unequivocally that the water is really, really cold. But 22.2 degrees Celsius isn't cold. It's actually 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and swimming in 72-degree water doesn't seem like much of a hardship. The temperature is not a typo, by the way: it was published in a New Yorker excerpt and in multiple printings of both the hardback and the paperback edition of the novel. Instead, it's simply an error. (It's one that obviously has since been called to Chabon's attention, because in the book's 2012 edition it has been changed to 2.2 degrees Celsius.*)

After Chabon went to such elaborate lengths to make his point and blew it so spectacularly, I found it impossible to disentangle the sources of my dislike of the novel. Would I have enjoyed it more without such a glaring (and easily avoidable) error? It's impossible to say.

Farewell to "Stuff I've Been Reading"?

I notice that Hornby's last "Stuff I've Been Reading" column was written in September 2012; he's missed the October and November/December issues of The Believer. He's threatened to stop before: Shakespeare Wrote for Money calls itself "the final collection" on the back cover, and indeed his column was on hiatus from September 2008 until May 2010. Here's hoping that he's simply undergoing another of his periodic "suspensions" by the Polysyllabic Spree, and that "Stuff I've Been Reading" will soon return.


* Update 24 November 2012: Sorry, I can't let this go: Chabon's new version is no better than his old one. 2.2 degrees Celsius (36 °F) isn't a realistic temperature for the Vltava at Prague in September.

The summer of 1935 was unusually warm in Prague (the city has one of the longest continuously-operating weather stations, the Prague Klemintinum, whose records go back to 1775). On September 27, 1935, it looks like the high temperature was about 21 °C (70 °F) and the low was about 13 °C (55 °F). That's the air temperature, of course; it's harder to find records of the water temperature, but I did find a scientific article that measured the river's average temperature on October 29-31, 1968 to be 11 °C (52 °F).

So when would the river get that cold? Here's an article from the Atlantic magazine, "Deep Freeze Spreads Across Europe," about the European cold snap this past winter; one of the images (#12) is captioned "A member of local polar swimmers club gets out of the Vltava River where water temperatures reached 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 degrees F) and air temperatures reached minus 9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees F) in Prague, on February 4, 2012."

OK, now I hate myself.

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