STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • In My Father’s House: Elegy for an Obsessive Love—Miranda Seymour
  • Collected Memoirs—Julian Maclaren-Ross
  • Light Years—James Salter
  • The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness —Steven Levy
  • Tropic of Cancer—Henry Miller

BOOKS READ:

  • Essays—George Orwell
  • [some of] The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness—Steven Levy
  • Ironweed—William Kennedy
  • Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth—Norman Lewis

I have been listening to my iPod on “shuffle” recently, and, like everyone else who does this, I became convinced that my machine was exercising a will of its own. Why did it seem to play Big Star every third song? (All iPod users come to believe that their inanimate MP3 players have recondite but real musical tastes.) And how come, if you shuffle for long enough, the initial letters of the artists picked spell out the names of your children? Confused, as always, by this and most other matters, I remembered that an English magazine had extracted a book about the iPod in which the author had dealt with the very subject of the non-random shuffle. The book turned out to be Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing, a cute (of course) little (naturally) white (what else?) hardback history of the iPod—or at least, that is how it’s billed. (The [British] subtitle of the book is “How the iPod became the defining object of the twenty-first century.”) What the book is actually about, however—and maybe most books are these days—is my predilection for 1980s synth-pop.

I am not speaking metaphorically here. In an early chapter of the book, Mr. Levy describes, for reasons too complicated to explain, how a fellow writer was caught listening to “a pathetic Pet Shop Boys tune, the sort of thing Nick Hornby would listen to on a bad day.” Now, I’m almost certain that this is supposed to be me, even though I don’t recognize my own supposed musical tastes. (The Pet Shop Boys are a bit too groovy for my liking, and their songs don’t have enough guitar on them.) I am relieved to hear, however, that I have good days and bad days, which at least opens up the possibility that on a good day I might be listening to something a little more au courant—Nirvana, say, or early Britney Spears.

Aren’t people rude? It’s something I don’t think one can ever get used to, if you live a semipublic life—and writers, by definition, can never go any more than semipublic because not enough people are interested in what we do. It doesn’t happen often—I don’t seem to have cropped up in Orwell’s essays, for example—but when it does, it’s always a shock, seeing yourself in a book, listening to music you don’t listen to (not, as Jerry Seinfeld said, that there’s anything wrong with the Pet Shop Boys), put there by someone you have never met and who, therefore, knows nothing about you… And what has the band done to deserve this, to borrow one of their song titles? They were mentioned in my newspaper this morning, in a diary piece about their plans for a musical adaptation of Francis Wheen’s brilliant biography of Marx; that, like so much they have done, sounds pretty cool to me. Unnerved, I skipped straight to his chapter about whether the shuffle feature is indeed random. It is, apparently.

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 Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, a collection of his columns from this magazine.

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