July/August 2012

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Carole King—A Natural Woman
  • Tom Franklin—Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
  • Jeanne Darst—Fiction Ruined My Family
  • Felicity Kendal—White Cargo
  • Jess Walter—Don’t Eat Cat
  • Ann Patchett—The Getaway Car
  • Buzz Bissinger—After Friday Night Lights

BOOKS READ:

  • Tom Franklin—Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
  • Megan Abbott—Dare Me
  • Stephen Amidon—Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron
  • Barbara Trapido—Brother of the More Famous Jack
  • Jess Walter—Don’t Eat Cat

How are writers going to make a living in ten, twenty, fifty years’ time? If you’re a writer (or a publisher, or an agent, or a critic, or maybe even a reader), then this question may have occurred to you. Conversations I’ve been having with people recently, people whose job it is to try and make sense of what’s happening out there, are alarming: bookstores are closing all over the place, and even the big chains are unlikely to survive in their current form for much longer; publishers are slashing advances; books by first-time authors that don’t sell in hardback are being offered an extended life in e-book rather than in paperback. Nobody knows how long our current publishing culture will last, but some very clever observers foresee profound change over the next five years, leaving us with very little that any of us, however old we are, will be able to recognize. The work of art that I keep thinking about in relation to all this is the 1951 Ealing Studios comedy The Man in the White Suit, starring Alec Guinness. Guinness plays a man who invents a material that never wears out and never gets dirty, to the horror of both the textile manufacturers and the unions. I haven’t seen the movie for a long time, but I seem to recall that we’re supposed to side with Guinness’s character, the little man who’s invented something for the benefit of humankind, and who has to battle the dark forces of vested interest. It’s hard to see it that way now, though, if you work in books or music or movies or TV. I now support the dark forces of vested interest. Yes, digitization has brought us convenience and portability and access, and saved us billions, because music and TV and films and, one day soon, books, are all free. But even so, I wish we’d at least talked about arresting the people who invented it, and maybe pulling out their tongues and cutting off their hands. I mean, I would have been against it, on balance. But I’d have listened carefully to the arguments from the other side.

When I try to talk about any of this stuff with those who love books, however, the dialogue becomes very frustrating very quickly.

ME: It’s pretty worrying, all this iPad and Kindle stuff.

NICE BOOK LOVER: Why?

ME: It’s not just the physical book that’s under threat. Have you been on a plane or a train recently? Nobody’s reading at all, in any form. They’re all watching screens.

NBL: Oh, I love books.

ME: Yeah, I know, but…

NBL: There’s nothing like the experience of being immersed in fiction.

ME: I agree, but…

NBL: And I could never switch to a Kindle. I love the smell of a new book. The feel of it. I like to know where I am in a book, and…

ME: I know you do, but…

NBL: Plus, I love my local independent bookstore. The people there are so knowledgeable, and they recommend things that they know I’ll—

ME: Yes, but there are only seventy-three of you in the entire country! You’re fifty years old! Your kids don’t even know which way up they should hold a book! The only reason people ever used to read in the first place was because they had nothing else to do, and now they have a million things to do, even in a dentist’s waiting room! Will you shut the fuck up about you?

NBL: I think you should go home now. You’re upsetting the other dinner guests.

It’s like trying to talk about global terrorism to someone who isn’t worried because he knows for a fact that he would never strap a bomb to himself and blow himself up, and neither would any of his friends or family. You’re glad to hear it, but your worries have not been entirely eradicated.

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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