September 2010

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS READ:

  • Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live——Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
  • Brooklyn—Colm Tóibín
  • The Girls of Slender Means—Muriel Spark
  • The Given Day—Dennis Lehane (half)
  • Loitering With Intent—Muriel Spark (half)
  • The Finishing School—Muriel Spark (half)
  • Tinkers—Paul Harding (one third)

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Our Mutual Friend—Charles Dickens
  • Brooklyn: Historically Speaking—John B. Manbeck

BOOKS DOWNLOADED FOR NOTHING:

  • Our Mutual Friend—Charles Dickens
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain
  • Babbitt—Sinclair Lewis

Four years ago to the very month, as I’m sure you will remember, this column daringly introduced a Scientist of the Month award. The first winner was Matthias Wittlinger, of the University of Ulm, in Germany, who had done remarkable things with, and to, ants. In an attempt to discover how it was that they were able to find their way home, Wittlinger had shortened the legs of one group and put another group on stilts, in order to alter their stride patterns. Shortening the legs of ants struck us, back in 2006, as an entirely admirable way to spend one’s time—but we were younger then, and it was a more innocent age. Despite the huge buzz surrounding the inaugural award, Wittlinger received nothing at all, and is unlikely even to know about his triumph, unless he subscribes to this magazine. And to add insult to injury, there was no subsequent winner, because the following month we forgot about the whole thing.

Anyway: it’s back! I am absurdly pleased to announce that this month’s recipient, Rolando Rodríguez-Muñoz, is employed at a university right here in England, the University of Exeter. Together with his colleague Tom Tregenza, Rodríguez-Muñoz has been studying the mating strategies of crickets; they discovered, according to the Economist, that “small males…. could overcome the handicap of their stature and win mates through prodigious chirping.” In other words, being the lead singer works for the nerdy and the disadvantaged in other species, too.

Rodríguez-Muñoz has shaded it over Tregenza because, after he and his colleagues had “captured, marked, released and tracked hundreds of crickets,” they filmed sixty-four different cricket burrows; Rodríguez-Muñoz watched and analyzed the results, two hundred and fifty thousand hours of footage. A quarter of a million hours! Just under three years of cricket porn! Presumably crickets, like the rest of us, spend much more time trying to get sex than actually having it, but even so, he must have seen some pretty racy stuff. Some of the sterner members of the judging panel tried to argue that because Rolando had watched the film on fast-forward, and on sixteen monitors at once, he had cut corners, but I’m not having that; as far as I’m concerned, watching crickets mate quickly is even harder than watching them mate in normal time. No, Rolando Rodríguez-Muñoz is a hero, and fully deserving of all the good things about to come his way.

There was a hurtful suggestion, four years ago, that the Scientist of the Month was somehow tangentially connected to the World Cup. He hasn’t read enough to fill up a whole column, because he’s spent the entire month watching TV, the argument went; so just because he stumbled upon an interesting article in a magazine between games, he’s invented this bullshit to get him out of a hole. I resent this deeply, not least because it devalues the brilliant work of these amazing scientists. And though it is true that, at the time of writing, we are approaching the end of another World Cup, and reading time has indeed been in shorter supply, I can assure you that the sudden reappearance of this prestigious honor is pure, though admittedly baffling, coincidence.

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.


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