STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • We’re All in This Together—Owen King
  • Funny Little Monkey—Andrew Auseon
  • The March—E. L. Doctorow
  • A Man Without a Country—Kurt Vonnegut

BOOKS READ:

  • Persepolis—Marjane Satrapi
  • Persepolis 2—Marjane Satrapi
  • Moondust—Andrew Smith
  • A Man Without a Country—Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Pendulum Years—Bernard Levin
  • Running in the Family—Michael Ondaatje

I have a bookshelf over my bed, which is where I put the Books Bought and others that I have a serious intention of reading one day. And inevitably, over time, some of these are pronounced dead, and taken gently and respectfully downstairs either to the living room shelves, if they are hardbacks, or the paperback bookcase immediately outside the bedroom door, where they are allowed to rest in peace. (Do we have a word for something that looked like a good idea once? I hope so.) I’m sure you all knew this, but in fact books never die—it’s just that I am clearly not very good at finding a pulse. I have learned this from my two younger children, who have taken to pulling books off the shelves within their reach and dropping them on the floor. Obviously I try not to notice, because noticing might well entail bending down to pick them up. But when I have finally and reluctantly concluded that no one else is going to do it, the book or books in my hand frequently look great—great and unread—and they are thus returned to the bookshelf over the bed. It’s a beautiful, if circular, system, something like the process of convectional rainfall: interest evaporates, and the books are reduced to so much hot air, so they rise, you know, sideways, or even downstairs, but then blah blah and they fall to the ground… something like, anyway, although perhaps not exactly like.

This is precisely how Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family was recently rediscovered. It turns out that I own a beautiful little Bloomsbury Classics hardback, as attractive to a small child, clearly, as it was to me. Indeed it’s so attractive that it wasn’t even placed back on the bookshelf over the bed: I began reading it fresh off the floor, as if it weren’t rainfall after all, but a ripe, juicy… enough with the inoperable imagery. Running in the Family is a fever dream of a book, delirious, saturated with color; it’s a travel book, and a family history, and a memoir, and it’s funny and unforgettable. Ondaatje grew up in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, and it would not be unkind to describe his father as nuts—now and again, dangerously so. He pretended to have gone to Cambridge University (he sailed to England, stayed in Cambridge for the requisite three years, read a lot, and hung out with students without ever bothering to enroll); he was banned from the Ceylon Railways after hijacking a train, knocking out his traveling companion, who happened to be the future Prime Minister of the country, and bringing the entire railway system to a standstill; he was a part-time alcoholic, prone to epic drinking bouts, who buried scores of bottles of gin in the back garden for emergencies.

Ondaatje helps us to float over all this emotional landscape so that it feels as if we were viewing it from a hot-air balloon on a perfect day; someone with a different temperament (or someone much younger, someone who still felt raw) could have written—and been forgiven for writing—something darker and more troubling. “I showed what you had written to someone and they laughed and said what a wonderful childhood we must have had, and I said it was a nightmare,” says an unnamed sibling at the end of the book, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the theory and practice of memoir: it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion. The passage describing the death of Lalla, Ondaatje’s grandmother, who was swept away in a flood, is one of the most memorable accounts of someone’s last moments that I can remember. I’m grateful to my children for all sorts of things, of course, things that will inevitably come to me immediately after I have finished this column and sent it off; but I’m extremely grateful that one of them dropped this wonderful book on the floor. Actually, that may well be it, in terms of what my sons have given me, which puts a different complexion on the experience. I loved Running in the Family, and I mean the author no disrespect. But it’s not much to show for twelve years of fatherhood, really, is it?

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, most recently, of a novel titled A Long Way Down.

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