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My apologies for the brief book review hiatus. But hey, sometimes life gets in the way of reading and writing, as it should!
This week we’re going positively post-modern. I’m reviewing a book that is a collection of book reviews! Brace yourself, folks.
Nick Hornby, who is perhaps one of the funniest writers to come out of Britain since PG Wodehouse, makes a habit of publishing collections of his own book reviews in small paperbacks. His most recent to come out in August, More Baths Less Talking. These reviews are about so much more than just books though. In the middle of pondering everything from politics to football (soccer, to us American lackeys) to raising children to modern science, to the very modern science of raising children while trying to watch football, in a world where politics are bringing us down, Hornby lets us into not just the books he reads, but his very habits, tendencies, and neuroses as a reader. This world is very, very familiar to me, which is part of why I latched onto these collections a couple years ago when I first picked up Shakespeare Wrote for Money. Books are companions; they are not simply the things that take up room on our shelves, under our beds, in our microwaves, etc. They take up our imaginations and nudge our willingness to learn something new, even when we’re pretty convinced we know it all. If this is not a miracle in this day and age, I don’t know what is.
More Baths Less Talking follows the same format of each of Hornby’s other collections. Each “chapter” begins with a list of the books bought and the books read that month. Hornby then spends several pages ruminating over the pages he’s read. It’s hard to imagine these would be entertaining to read ourselves, right?
Hornby has been blessed with the perfect blend of sarcastic self-aggrandizement and very real self-deprecation, and you will love his reflections on his fellow writers through this lens. Everybody from Charles Dickens to Sarah Vowell is discussed in Hornby’s mock-authoritative voice, and every subject you can imagine is covered in his monthly purchases. However, the little nuggets of clarity, the perceptive musings are just as important as the laugh-out-loud moments, and it’s why Hornby is such a fantastic writer in general.
In remarking on his early education, and early aversion to old literature, Hornby declares, “The quickest way to kill all love for the classics, I can see now, is to tell young people that nothing else matters, because then all they can do is look at them in a museum of literature, through glass cases. Don’t touch! And don’t think for a moment that they want to live in the same world as you! And so a lot of adult life—if your hunger and curiosity haven’t been squelched by your education—is learning to join up the dots that you didn’t even know were there.”
Hornby tells us who to read, who not to read, what sequels are worth it and which ones aren’t. He questions the characteristic severity and intensity of John Updike, envies the life of Patti Smith, and gives a resounding “meh” to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And when he has the good fortune of reading a string of great books in a row, he chalks it up to his own good taste, saying “You have to admit that when three books this good get read back to back, I’m the one that has to be given most of the credit.”
Maybe the jokes, the acerbic wit, and the fake bravado are not your thing. Maybe poignant reviews of old standbys and undiscovered new gems that can change the way you view books and your own reading tendencies, is not your thing either (but I doubt that). If, however, this is not your cup of tea, I know there is something out there that is. A mystery and suspense-filled lemon zinger with a cinnamon stick surprise ending. A heady jasmine historical novel. A sleepytime autobiography with fumes of chamomile. Whatever it is, it’s out there. As Hornby would say, “Great writing is going on all around us, always has done, always will.”