I can understand that the title of this book might put some people off. My wife, for instance. Why would I want to know about what Nick Hornby has been reading? she asked when I told her that this book collected Hornby’s columns from The Believer between 2006-2011. This is pretty much what she said when she caught me reading Hornby’s last collection of Believer columns, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. My response, which isn’t up there with the best explanations for why a person should read a book, took in (a) the affability of Hornby’s gently self-deprecating prose, (b) the strange pleasure to be had in comparing reading trajectories (I read a few of the same books over the same period) and (c) the euphoria that accompanies a good recommendation – and Stuff I’ve Been Reading is full of good recommendations.
On the reading trajectories front, it is somehow strangely pleasing to know that Nick Hornby and I were both reading Fun Home, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, On Chesil Beach, The Road, Lush Life, Brooklyn, Tinkers, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts, The Psychopath Test, Norwood, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, Hellhound on His Trail and Charles Dickens: A Life, amongst others, at more or less the same time. [There is also a sense that you wish to return the gesture – ‘oh, you liked the Barbara Demick? you should definitely read Emma Larkin’s Everything is Broken – only the text is littered with eye-rolling responses to the latest book that has been recommended to him.]
On the recommendations front, there are books I haven’t got to yet by authors I like (such as Jess Walter’s The Zero, Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight, The Darling by Russell Banks), nonfiction books that sound really interesting (Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s Yo Blair! and Austerity Britain by David Kynaston), interesting sounding novels that I’ve not heard a dickybird about before (such as Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty by Tim Sandlin – which had me wondering if Nick Hornby would like Steven Sherrill’s excellent The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, ) and, of course, books I’ve meant to read but not got around to yet (like Dan Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed). Hornby is also good at admitting his own reading lacunae and then celebrating finds whenever he ‘discovers’ someone who he knows he should’ve read sooner but again didn’t get round to (so if you’ve yet to dabble with Muriel Spark for instance, Stuff I’ve Been Reading will gently push you in that direction).
Which isn’t to say that I agree with everything that Hornby has to say or like everything Hornby likes (he has a bit of a bug in his bonnet about Our Mutual Friend which I have always liked, just as a for instance), and more to say that reading Stuff I’ve Been Reading is like spending a very enjoyable afternoon in the pub discussing books. There are shortcomings (Hornby is self-deprecating to a point; you sense that he bridles at things that get written about him), and also sections of the book that feel a bit ‘old mannish’ (an introduction all but comes out and admits that certain things were better in the good old days) as well as constraints imposed by The Believer (you’re not allowed to say a bad word about anyone, so when Hornby has a bad word to say he becomes all coy – you’ll have to Google certain references to find out who he is talking about). But the glimpse you get into Hornby’s life (he is apparently busy writing a screenplay of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn if you’re wondering why there are no new Hornby novels on the horizon) and also the slightly manufactured fun he has at The Believer’s expense is all really enjoyable.
So, to come full circle and to return to my wife busy shaking her head at why this book even exists, either you’ll be the kind of person who will get a kick out of reading about someone write about books they’ve read or you won’t be – and if it’s not for you, that’s okay, there are more than enough books on the shelf (literal or virtual) to keep you distracted. If you’re like me, however, and this sounds like something you’d be interested in, then it’s a fair amount of fun.
Any Cop?: Does what it says on the tin.