STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Skellig—David Almond
  • Clay—David Almond
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden—Philippa Pearce
  • Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime—Joe Moran
  • The Road—Cormac McCarthy
  • Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance—Atul Gawande
  • The Rights of the Reader—Daniel Pennac

BOOKS READ:

  • Skellig—David Almond
  • Clay—David Almond
  • Sharp Teeth—Toby Barlow
  • The Road—Cormac McCarthy
  • The Brambles—Eliza Minot
  • Queuing for Beginners—Joe Moran
  • American Born Chinese—Gene Luen Yang

I had all sorts of clever introductions to this month’s column written in my head, opening paragraphs that would have provoked and inspired and maybe even amused one or two of you, if you were in a really good mood. When I read the Eliza Minot novel, I started working up this riff about the joys of uncannily accurate impersonation; when I read the David Almond novels, I was going to tell you all to abandon adult fiction and turn to books written for kids and teenagers. And then I read the Cormac McCarthy novel, and they all seemed inappropriate, like trying to tell New Yorkers about my news first on September 11, 2001.

As you probably know by now—and more than eight million of you voted for it in the Believer Book Award—The Road may well be the most miserable book ever written, and God knows there’s some competition out there. As you probably know by now, it’s about the end of the world. Two survivors of the apocalypse, a man and his young son, wander through the scarred gray landscape foraging for food, and trying to avoid the feral gangs who would rather kill them and eat them than share their sandwiches with them. The man spends much of the book wondering whether he should shoot his son with their last remaining bullet, just to spare him any further pain. Sometimes they find unexpected caches of food and drink. Sometimes they find shriveled heads, or the remains of a baby on a barbecue. Sometimes you feel like begging the man to use his last bullet on you, rather than the boy. The boy is a fictional creation, after all, but you’re not. You’re really suffering. Reading The Road is rather like attending the beautiful funeral of someone you love who has died young. You’re happy that the ceremony seems to be going so well, and you know you’ll remember the experience for the rest of your life, but the truth is that you’d rather not be there at all.

What do we think about when we read a novel this distressing? The Road is a brilliant book, but it is not a complicated one, so it’s not as if we can distract ourselves with contemplation; you respond mostly with your gut rather than your mind. My wife, who read it just before I did, has vowed to become more practical in order to prepare herself for the end of the world; her lack of culinary imagination when handed a few wizened animal gizzards and some old bits of engine has left her with the feeling that she’d be an inadequate mother if worse comes to worst. And I ended up thinking about those occasional articles about the death of the novel—almost by definition, seeing as our planet hasn’t yet suffered this kind of fatal trauma, you cannot find a nonfiction book as comprehensively harrowing or as provocative as this. Most of the time, however, you just experience an agonizing empathy, especially, perhaps, if you are a parent, and you end up wondering what you can possibly do with it, apart from carry it around with you for days afterward. “It is also a warning,” one of the reviews quoted on the back of my paperback tells me. Well, after reading this, I definitely won’t be pushing the button that brings about the global holocaust.

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 lives in North London. His new novel for young adults, Slam, will be published in October, 2007.


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