June 2010

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Let the Great World Spin—Colum McCann
  • The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them—Elif Batuman
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness—Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
  • Lowboy—John Wray
  • Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenneyMarion Meade

BOOKS READ:

  • The rest of Austerity Britain, 1945–51—David Kynaston
  • Just Kids—Patti Smith
  • The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
  • Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared—Andrew Brown
  • Some of Puzzled People: A Study in Popular Attitudes to Religion, Ethics, Progress and Politics in a London Borough, Prepared for the Ethical Union—Mass-Observation

So this last month, I went to the Oscars. I went to the Oscars as a nominee, I should stress (apparently in underlined italics), not as some loser, even though that, ironically, was what I became during the ceremony, by virtue of the archaic and almost certainly corrupt academy voting process. And my task now is to find a way of making the inclusion of that piece of information look relevant to a column about my reading life, rather than gratuitous and self-congratulatory. And I think I can do it, too: it strikes me that just about every book I’ve read in the past few weeks could be categorized as anti-Oscar. Austerity Britain? That one’s pretty obvious. Both words in that title are antithetical to everything that happens in Hollywood during awards season. You’re unlikely to catch a CAA agent in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont reading Andrew Brown’s thoughtful, occasionally pained book about his complicated relationship with Sweden; Elif Batuman’s funny, original The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them is populated by people who spend their entire lives thinking about, say, the short stories of Isaac Babel, rather than Jennifer Aniston’s career. (I’m not saying that one mental occupation is superior to the other, but they’re certainly different, possibly even oppositional.) And even Patti Smith’s memoir, which could have been glamorous and starry, is as much about Genet and Blake as it is about rock and roll, and is suffused with a sense of purpose and an authenticity absent even from independent cinema. Oh, and no fiction at all, which has got to be significant in some way, no? If you want to ward off corruption, then surely the best way to do it is to sit by a swimming pool and read a chapter about Britain’s postwar housing crisis. It worked for me, anyway. I can exclusively reveal that if you sit by a swimming pool in L.A., wearing swimming shorts and reading David Kynaston, then Hollywood starlets leave you alone.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Nick Hornby lives in North London.

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