May 2012

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Stumbling on Happiness—Daniel Gilbert
  • Prunella: The Authorized Biography of Prunella Scales—Teresa Ransom
  • The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens—Jenny Hartley, ed.
  • Joan’s Book—Joan Littlewood
  • The Submission—Amy Waldman
  • Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be: The Lionel Bart Story—David and Caroline Stafford

BOOKS READ:

  • Imagine: How Creativity Works—Jonah Lehrer
  • Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be: The Lionel Bart Story—David and Caroline Stafford
  • Beautiful Ruins—Jess Walter
  • Citizen Vince—Jess Walter
  • Ready Player One—Ernest Cline

I am a creative professional. The temptation to qualify that sentence with an “I suppose” or a “for want of a better description” or an “on a good day” or a “whatever you might think” or just a simple “not” is almost overwhelming; it feels as though I just began a column with the sentence “I am very good at sex.” Actually, it’s even worse than that. I am likely to have sex with only a very small minority of you, for various reasons that we don’t need to go into here, some of them surprising, so word is unlikely to spread. But you can all buy or borrow a book or a movie or even an album I’ve written, and make up your own minds about my creativity. One of the many admirable things about Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine is that he does not argue that to be creative is the same thing as to be special, or clever, or gifted, and that’s what sounds uncomfortable about that opening sentence: I seem to be saying something more than “I make stuff up, and someone shells out for it.” I’m not, though. Honestly.

The first half of Imagine is about what happens in our brains when we make stuff up, and it’s riveting, especially, perhaps, if that’s what you’re paid to do. The frequent appearance in this column of biographies, typically biographies of artists, can be explained by my enduring interest in this very subject. The main reason I pick up those books in the first place is because I want to know how Preston Sturges or Richard Yates or Lucille Ball or, most recently, Charles Dickens did what they did; I want to know what it felt like to be them. Well, Lehrer’s subject is the mother ship. This is the literary biography that bypasses the details of advances and failed marriages, leaves out the names, even, and attempts to deal with the literal source of all creativity. There are many reasons why Dickens became Dickens, but none of them would have counted for anything had it not been for the alpha waves emanating from the right side of his brain, the part of us that enables insight and epiphany, working in conjunction with his prefrontal cortex, where his (admittedly prodigious) working memory was kept. Coffee and alcohol might have helped, and his legendarily long walks played a part, too. Dickens wouldn’t have known about amphetamines, which were first created in Germany in 1887, seventeen years after his death—is there nothing this column doesn’t know? But if he had, he’d have shoveled them in like M&M’s, which, incidentally, weren’t actually patented until 1941. (OK, I’ll stop now. It’s not even actual knowledge I’m dispensing. It’s bits of Wikipedia.) It also helped, Lehrer explains, that he traveled and lived in a city, and that he had to battle with constraints of form, in his case imposed by the monthly serialization of most of his books.

Most of us sense, vaguely, that a walk will clear our heads, that drugs and coffee might help us to concentrate, that we find it easier to create if some kind of boundary is placed around our imagination. When a teacher asks for a story about anything at all, then the student will struggle; tell a kid that you want a story about a talking sponge who wants to take part in the Olympics and you’ll get something pretty cool. What’s enthralling about Lehrer’s book is that he has neuroscientific explanations for why our habits and dependencies work. Speed, for example, increases the amount of dopamine in the synapses, and this helps us to pay attention: suddenly everything seems interesting. This means it’s an editing drug rather than a creative drug, because we suddenly find we’re getting pleasure from, say, messing about with the rhythm of a single sentence. In one of the most thrilling parts of this book, Lehrer compares the taut, spare, simple (and brilliant) poetry Auden wrote while using Benzedrine with the long “vomit”—Dylan’s word—of “Like a Rolling Stone,” an epiphanic right-hemisphere production if ever there was one.

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 is the author of six novels, the most recent of which is Juliet, Naked, and a memoir, Fever Pitch. He is also the author of Songbook, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for music criticism, and editor of the short-story collection Speaking with the Angel. His screenplay for An Education was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in North London.


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