January 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Dickens Dictionary—Alexander J. Philip
  • Half a Life—Darin Strauss
  • The Anthologist—Nicholson Baker
  • The Million Dollar Mermaid—Esther Williams

BOOKS READ:

  • Our Mutual Friend—Charles Dickens
  • The Uncoupling—Meg Wolitzer
  • Let the Great World Spin—Colum McCann
  • Half a Life—Darin Strauss

The advantages and benefits of writing a monthly column about reading for the Believer are innumerable, if predictable: fame, women (it’s amazing what people will do to get early information about the “Books Bought” list), international influence, and so on. But perhaps the biggest perk of all, one that has only emerged slowly, over the years, is this: you can’t read long books. Well, I can’t, anyway. I probably read between two and three hundred pages, I’m guessing, during the average working week, and I have the impression—please correct me if I’m wrong—that if you saw only one book in the “Books Read” list at the top there, it would be very hard to persuade you to plough through what would, in effect, be a two-thousand-word book review. And as a consequence, there are all sorts of intimidating-looking eight-hundred-pagers that I feel completely justified in overlooking. I am ignoring them for your benefit, effectively, although it would be disingenuous to claim that I spend my month resenting you. On the contrary, there have been times when, watching friends or fellow passengers struggling through some au courant literary monster, I have wanted to kiss you. I once gave a whole column over to David Copperfield, I remember, and more recently I raced through David Kynaston’s brilliant but Rubenesque Austerity Britain. For the most part, though, there’s a “Stuff I’ve Been Reading”–induced five-hundred-page cutoff.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I am a literary fattist anyway; I have had a resistance to the more amply proportioned book all my adult life, which is why the thesis I’m most likely to write is entitled “The Shortest Book by Authors Who Usually Go Long.” The Crying of Lot 49, Silas Marner, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… I’ve read ’em all. You can infer from that lot what I haven’t read. And in any case, long, slow books can have a disastrous, demoralizing effect on your cultural life if you have young children and your reading time is short. You make only tiny inroads into the chunky white wastes every night before falling asleep, and before long you become convinced that it’s not really worth reading again until your children are in reform school. My advice, as someone who has been an exhausted parent for seventeen years now, is to stick to the svelte novel—it’s not as if this will lower the quality of your consumption, because you’ve still got a good couple of hundred top, top writers to choose from. Have you read everything by Graham Greene? Or Kurt Vonnegut? Anne Tyler, George Orwell, E. M. Forster, Carol Shields, Jane Austen, Muriel Spark, H. G. Wells, Ian McEwan? I can’t think of a book much over four hundred pages by any of them. I wouldn’t say that you have to make an exception for Dickens, because we at the Believer don’t think that you have to read anybody—we just think you have to read. It’s just that short Dickens is atypical Dickens—Hard Times, for example, is long on angry satire, short on jokes—and Dickens, as John Carey said in his brilliant little critical study The Violent Effigy, is “essentially a comic writer.” If you’re going to read him at all, then choose a funny one. Great Expectations is under six hundred pages, and one of the greatest novels ever written, so that’s not a bad place to start.

Some months ago, I agreed to write an introduction to Our Mutual Friend—eight or nine hundred pages in paperback form, a terrifying two-and-a-half thousand pages on the iPad—and I have been waiting for a gap in the Believer’s monthly schedule before attempting to embark on the long, long road. The recent double issue gave me an eight-week window of opportunity to read Dickens’s last completed novel (only the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood came after it) on top of something else, so I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I first read Our Mutual Friend years and years ago, and didn’t enjoy the experience much, but I was almost certain that the fault was mine rather than the author’s. Something was going on at the time—divorce, illness, a newborn, or one of the other humdrum hazards that turn reading into a chore—and Our Mutual Friend never really started to move in the way that the other big Dickens novels had previously done. (There’s this moment you get a hundred or so pages in, if you’re lucky and sympathetic to Dickens’s narrative style and worldview, when you feel the whole thing judder into life and pick up speed, like a train, or a liner, or some other vehicle whose size and weight make motion seem unlikely.) So I didn’t worry about taking on the commission. I am in reasonable health, my next divorce is at least a year or so away, and I have given up having children, so I was sure that, this time around, I’d see that Our Mutual Friend is right up there with the other good ones—in other words, I was about to read one of the richest, most inventive, funniest, saddest, most energetic novels in literature.

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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