STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959—Tim Hinley, ed.

BOOKS READ:

  • What Sport Tells Us About Life—Ed Smith
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—Sherman Alexie
  • The Darling—Russell Banks
  • The Rights of the Reader—Daniel Pennac

The best description I know of what it feels like to learn to read comes in Francis Spufford’s brilliant memoir The Child That Books Built:

When I caught the mumps, I couldn’t read; when I went back to school again, I could. The first page of The Hobbit was a thicket of symbols, to be decoded one at a time and joined hesitantly together…. By the time I reached The Hobbit’s last page, though, writing had softened, and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster, until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts. I had undergone the acceleration into the written word that you also experience as a change in the medium. In fact, writing had ceased to be a thing—an object in the world—and become a medium, a substance you look through.

Firstly, we should note that the first book Spufford ever read was The Hobbit, a book that I still haven’t picked up, partly because I am afraid I still won’t understand it. Secondly, Spufford caught the mumps just as he turned six—he is one of the cleverest people I have ever come across, and yet some parents with young children would be freaking out if their kids weren’t able to read by then. And lastly, I would just like to point out that you can’t fake a memory like this. Learning to read happens once and once only for most of us, and for the vast majority of adults in first-world countries it happened a long time ago. You have to dig deep, deep down into the bog of the almost-lost, and then carry what you have found carefully to the surface, and then you have to find the words and images to describe what you see on your spade. Perhaps Spufford’s amazing feat of recollection means nothing to you; but when I first read it, I knew absolutely that this was what happened to me: I too spooned up the jelly of meaning.

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 most recent book is Slam, a novel for young adults.

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