STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Saturday—Ian McEwan
  • Towards the End of the Morning—Michael Frayn
  • The 9/11 Commission Report
  • How To Be Lost—Amanda Eyre Ward
  • Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life—Claire Tomalin

BOOKS READ:

  • Saturday—Ian McEwan
  • Towards the End of the Morning—Michael Frayn
  • Case Histories—Kate Atkinson
  • So Now Who Do We Vote For?—John Harris
  • Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—Nick Flynn

A few years ago, I was having my head shaved in a local barbers’ when the guy doing the shaving turned to the young woman working next to him and said, “This bloke’s famous.”

I winced. This wasn’t going to end well, I could tell. Any fame that you can achieve as an author isn’t what most people regard as real fame, or even fake fame. It’s not just that nobody recognizes you; most people have never heard of you, either. It’s that anonymous sort of fame.

The young woman looked at me and shrugged.

“Yeah,” said the barber. “He’s a famous writer.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of him,” said the young woman.

“I never even told you his name,” said the barber.

The young woman shrugged again.

“Yeah, well,” said the barber. “You’ve never heard of any writers, have you?”

The young woman blushed. I was dying. How long did it take to shave a head, anyway?

“Name one author. Name one author ever.”

I didn’t intercede on the poor girl’s behalf because it didn’t seem to be that hard a question, and I thought she’d come through. I was wrong. There was a long pause, and eventually she said, “Ednit.”

“Ednit?” said her boss. “Ednit? Who the fuck’s Ednit?”

“Well, what’s her name, then?”

“Who?”

“Ednit.”

Eventually, after another two or three excruciating minutes, we discovered that ‘Ednit’ was Enid Blyton, the enormously popular English children’s author of the 1940s and 1950s. In other words, the young woman had been unable to name any writer in the history of the world—not Shakespeare, not Dickens, not even Michel Houellebecq. And she’s not alone. A survey conducted by WHSmith in 2000 found that 43 percent of adults questioned were unable to name a favorite book, and 45 percent failed to come up with a favorite author. (This could be because those questioned were unable to decide between Roth and Bellow, but let’s presume not.) Forty percent of Britons and 43 percent of Americans never read any books at all, of any kind. Over the past twenty years, the proportion of Americans aged 18–34 who read literature (and literature is defined as poems, plays, or narrative fiction) has fallen by 28 percent. The 18–34 age group, incidentally, used to be the one most likely to read a novel; it has now become the least likely.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Nick Hornby is the author of five books, most recently The Polysyllabic Spree. He lives in North London.

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