November/December 2010

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS READ:

  • How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer—Sarah Bakewell
  • The Broken Word—Adam Foulds
  • Book of Days—Emily Fox Gordon

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Book of Days—Emily Fox Gordon
  • The Master—Colm Tóibín
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea—Barbara Demick
  • Family Britain, 1951–1957—David Kynaston
  • The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger—Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Something has been happening to me recently—something which, I suspect, is likely to affect a significant and important part of the rest of my life. The grandiose way of describing this shift is to say that I have been slowly making my peace with antiquity; or, to express it in words that more accurately describe what’s going on, I have discovered that some old shit isn’t so bad.

Hitherto, my cultural blind spots have included the Romantic poets, every single bar of classical music ever written, and just about anything produced before the nineteenth century, with the exception of Shakespeare and a couple of the bloodier, and hence more Tarantinoesque, revenge tragedies. When I was young, I didn’t want to listen to or read anything that reminded me of the brown and deeply depressing furniture in my grandmother’s house. She didn’t have many books, but those she did own were indeed brown: cheap and old editions of a couple of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, for example, and maybe a couple of hand-me-down books by somebody like Frances Hodgson Burnett. When I ran out of stuff to read during the holidays, I was pointed in the direction of her one bookcase, but I wanted bright Puffin paperbacks, not mildewed old hardbacks, which came to represent just about everything I wasn’t interested in.

This unhelpful association, it seems to me, should have withered with time; instead, it has been allowed to flourish, unchecked. Don’t you make yogurt by putting a spoonful of yogurt into something-or-other? Well, I created a half century of belligerent prejudice with one spoonful of formative ennui. I soon found that I didn’t want to read or listen to anything that anybody in any position of educational authority told me to. Chaucer was full of woodworm; Wordsworth was yellow and curling at the edges, whatever edition I was given. I read Graham Greene and John Fowles, Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, Chandler and Nathanael West, Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick, and I listened exclusively to popular music. Dickens crept in, eventually, because he was funny, unlike Sir Walter Scott and Shelley, who weren’t. And, because everything was seen through the prism of rock and roll, every now and again I would end up finding something I learned about through the pages of New Musical Express. When Mick Jagger happened to mention that “Sympathy for the Devil” was inspired by Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, off I trotted to the library. It didn’t help that I was never allowed to study anything remotely contemporary until the last year of university: There was never any sense of that leading to this. If anything, my education gave me the opposite impression, of an end to cultural history round about the time that Forster wrote A Passage to India. The quickest way to kill all love for the classics, I can see now, is to tell young people that nothing else matters, because then all they can do is look at them in a museum of literature, through glass cases. Don’t touch! And don’t think for a moment that they want to live in the same world as you! And so a lot of adult life—if your hunger and curiosity haven’t been squelched by your education—is learning to join up the dots that you didn’t even know were there.

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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