September 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Ten Thousand Saints—Eleanor Henderson
  • Elia Kazan—Richard Schickel
  • Monogamy—Adam Phillips
  • Your Voice in My Head—Emma Forrest
  • Young Stalin—Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • The Sex Diaries: Why Women Go Off Sex and Other Bedroom Battles—Bettina Arndt
  • Epitaph of a Small Winner—Machado de Assis
  • Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century—Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

BOOKS READ:

  • Out Stealing Horses—Per Petterson
  • Ten Thousand Saints—Eleanor Henderson
  • Elia Kazan—Richard Schickel
  • Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies, and Domestic Bliss—Esther Perel

I know that you are younger than me, because more or less everyone is, nowadays. I am presuming, too, that if you have turned to this page of the Believer then you have an interest in books, and that if you read any of the rest of the magazine, then you are likely to have a deep passion for other forms of art. It is not too much of a stretch, then, to deduce from this information that your sexual relationships are complicated, morally dubious, and almost certainly unsavory, and I say that with as much neutrality as I can muster. So before I write about Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel’s book about monogamous sex, I suppose I should clarify a couple of points for you.

Firstly: Monogamy is this thing where you sleep with only one person. And I’m not talking about only one person during the whole length of Bonnaroo, or an art-film screening, or a poetry “happening,” or whatever. Sometimes the commitment might last weeks, months even. (Married readers: in next month’s column, I may introduce some more information, although I suspect they’re some years away from being able to handle the dismal truth.) Esther Perel has cleverly recognized that a tiny minority of monogamists can occasionally feel a twinge of inexplicable and indefinable dissatisfaction with their chosen path—nothing significant, and certainly nothing that leads them to rethink their decision (monogamous relationships almost never fail, unless either partner is still sexually active)—and she has written a book that might help them through this tricky time. It’s a niche market, obviously, the sexual equivalent of a guide for people whose pets have an alcohol-abuse problem. It’s great that someone has done it, but it’s not for everyone.

Secondly, I should also explain that I read this book for professional reasons, and professional reasons alone: I’m trying to write something about monogamy, god help me. I know that sounds dubious, but maybe you will believe me if I confess that my own marital problems lie beyond the reach of any self-help book available in a bookstore, or even on Amazon. They also lie beyond the reach of pills and tears, but perhaps I have said too much.

Mating in Captivity is a very wise book—I was going to say “surprisingly wise,” because I have hitherto maintained the lit-snob assumption that nonfiction books that purport to improve your unhappy marriage or your failing career or your sickly spiritual well-being will actually do no such thing. (As we know around these parts, only Great Literature can save your soul, which is why all English professors are morally unimpeachable human beings, completely free from vanity, envy, sloth, lust, and so on.) Perel is very good on how the space between couples in which eroticism thrives, a space we are desperate to fill in the early days of a relationship, can be shrunk by domesticity and knowledge; there is a pragmatic understanding in her writing that is entirely winning and sympathetic.

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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