Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August 2005

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August 2005

Nick Hornby
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  • Gilead—Marilynne Robinson
  • The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup—Susan Orlean
  • Housekeeping—Marilynne Robinson*
  • You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination—Katherine Harmon
  • Babbitt—Sinclair Lewis
  • Between Silk and Cyanide—Leo Marks
  • Bartleby the Scrivener—Herman Melville
  • The Disappointment Artist—Jonathan Lethem
  • Wonderland—Michael Bamberger

* Bought twice—administrative error.


  • Gilead—Marilynne Robinson
  • Little Scarlett—Walter Mosley
  • Noblesse Oblige—Nancy Mitford
  • Spies—Michael Frayn
  • The Amateur Marriage—Anne Tyler
  • Penguin Special—Jeremy Lewis
  • Hard News—Seth Mnookin
  • Jane Austen—Gill Hornby

A few months ago, I heard a pompous twit on a radio program objecting, bitterly and at some length, to Martin Amis’s Money being republished in the Penguin Modern Classic series. It couldn’t possibly be a classic, said the pompous twit, because we need fifty years to judge whether a book is a classic or not. It seemed to me that the twit’s argument could be summarized succinctly thus: “I don’t like Martin Amis’s Money very much,” because nothing else made much sense. (Presumably we’re not allowed to use the phrase “modern classic” about anything at all unless we wish to appear oxymoronic, even though in this context the word “classic” means, simply, “of the highest class.” The pompous twit seemed to be laboring under the misapprehension that a “classic” book is somehow related to classical music, and therefore has to be a bit old and a bit posh before it qualifies.) Do you have Penguin Modern Classics in your country? Over here, they used to mean a lot to young and pretentious lovers of literature. My friends and I used to make sure we had a PMC, with its distinctive light green spine, about our persons at all times, as an indication both of our intellectual seriousness and of our desire/willingness to sleep with girls who also liked books. It never worked, of course, but we lived in hope. Anyway, L’Étranger was a Penguin Modern Classic; I probably read it in 1974, thirty-odd years after it was published. And when I was talking embarrassing rubbish about Sartre to fellow seventeen-year-olds, La Nausee—another light green ’un—had been around for less than forty years. If the pompous twit’s fifty-year rule had been enforced when I was a teenager, I’d never have read either of them—we needed that green spine for validation—and as a consequence I’d be even more ill-educated than I am now.

Anyway, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is clearly a modern classic, and it hasn’t even been in print for five minutes. It’s a beautiful, rich, unforgettable work of high seriousness, and you don’t need to know that the book has already won the Pulitzer Prize to see that Robinson isn’t messing around. I didn’t even mind that it’s essentially a book about Christianity, narrated by a Christian; in fact, for the first time I understood the point of Christianity—or at least, I understood how it might be used to assist thought. I am an atheist living in a godless country (7 percent of us attend church on a regular basis), so the version of Christianity I am exposed to most frequently is the evangelical U.S. version. We are a broad church here at the Believer, and I don’t wish to alienate any of our subscribers who believe that gays will burn in hell for all eternity and so on, but your far-right evangelism has never struck me as being terribly conducive to thought—rather the opposite, if aNYThing. I had to reread passages from Gilead several times—beautiful, luminous passages about grace, and debt, and baptism—before I half-understood them, however: there are complicated and striking ideas on every single page.

Gilead is narrated by a dying pastor, the Reverend John Ames, and takes the form of a long letter to his young son; the agony of impending loss informs every word of the book, although this agony has been distilled into a kind of wide-eyed and scrupulously unsentimental wonder at the beauty of the world. It’s true that the book contains very little in the way of forward momentum, and one reads it rather as one might read a collection of poetry; it’s only two hundred and fifty pages long, but it took me weeks to get through. (I kept worrying, in fact, about reading Gilead in the wrong way. I didn’t want it to go by in dribs and drabs, but it seemed equally inappropriate to scoff something containing this amount of calories down in a few gulps.) This column has frequently suggested that a novel without forward momentum isn’t really worth bothering with, but that theory, like so many others, turned out not to be worth the (admittedly very expensive) paper it was printed on: Gilead has turned me into a wiser and better person. In fact, I am writing these words in a theological college somewhere in England, where I will spend the next several years. I’ll miss my kids, my partner, and my football team, but when God comes knocking, you don’t shut the door in His face, do you? All this only goes to show that you never know how a novel’s going to affect you.

We all of us know that the circumstances sur-rounding the reading of a book are probably every bit as important as the book itself, and I read Gilead at a weird time. I was on book tour in the UK, and I was sick of myself and of the sound of my own voice, and of appearing on daft radio shows, where I found that it was surprisingly easy to reduce my own intricately wrought novel to idiotic sound bites: if anyone were ever in need of the astonishing hush that Marilynne Robinson achieves in her book—how do you do that, in some-thing crafted out of words?—it was I. Caveat emptor, but if you don’t like it, then you have no soul.

So Gilead is one of the most striking novels I have ever read, and it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s a modern classic, but it doesn’t win the coveted “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” book-of-the-month award. It didn’t even come close, incredibly. That honor goes to my sister Gill’s Jane Austen: The Girl With the Magic Pen, a biography intended for children but strongly recommended to anyone of any age. If you want me to be definitive about it, then I would say that whereas Gilead is one of the best new novels I’ve read for years, Hornby’s biography is undoubtedly the best book of all time. Strong words, I know, but: it’s ninety pages long! It’s about Jane Austen, who was great, right? I rest my case.

My sister’s work is, however, quite clearly, underneath it all, both about and aimed at me. Listen to this: “Jane’s eldest brother, James, was busy trotting out lofty verse, in a manner befitting the vicar he was soon to become…. There was no doubt, they all said, who was the writer in the family—and James readily (and a little smugly) agreed!” I think we can all read the subtext here, can’t we? James Austen = NH. Jane Austen = GH. (Weirdly, my sister didn’t even know about my recent decision to become a man of the cloth when she wrote those lines.) And what about this? “Families are funny things, and often cannot see what is under their noses.” Hey, no need to beat around the bush! Just come out and say what’s on your mind, Oh Great One! As if Mum ever allowed me to forget that you were the really clever member of the family. As if Mum didn’t always love you more than me anyway…. Sorry. This probably isn’t the most appropriate forum in which to air grievances of this kind, however justifiable. And in any case, if you’re too dim to under-stand the book properly, to see it for what it really is—namely, a rage-fueled, ninety-page poison-pen letter to the author’s brother—you’ll find much to enjoy on the superficial level. She had to pretend at least that she was writing about Austen, and that stuff is great, lively, and informative. See? If I can be generous about your work, how come you can’t bring yourself to…. Sorry again. I’m just going out for a cigarette and a walk. I’ll be right back. A whole bunch of these books I read for work. You can’t just go on the radio and say, “Buy my new novel. It’s great.” Oh, no. That’s not how it works. You have to go on the radio and say, “Buy his new novel. It’s great.” And then, according to the publicity departments at my publishers, the listening public is so seduced by the sound of your voice that it ignores what you’re actually telling them, and goes out to buy your book anyway. We have this show called A Good Read, on which a couple of guests talk with the show’s presenter about a book they love, and I chose Michael Frayn’s Spies, which is a wonderful, complicated, simple novel about childhood, suburbia, and the Second World War. My fellow guest chose Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige, which was published in the 1950s, and discusses the upper classes and their use of language—they say “lavatory,” we say “toilet,” that kind of thing. My fellow guest wasn’t so keen on Spies, which was kind of hilarious, considering that he’d just made us plough through all this stuff about “napkin” versus “serviette.” I won’t say any more about Noblesse Oblige, as otherwise the Polysyllabic Spree will ban me for yet another issue, and I’m spending more time out than in as it is.

Our host, meanwhile, chose Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage, and both the choice and the novel itself made me very happy. Anne Tyler is the person who first made me want to write: I picked up Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in a bookshop, started to read it there and then, bought it, took it home, finished it, and suddenly I had an ambition, for about the first time in my life. I was worried that The Amateur Marriage was going to be a little schematic: Tyler tells the story of a relationship over the decades, and the early part of the book is perhaps too tidy. In the ’50s, the couple are living out America’s postwar suburban dream, in the ’60s they’re on the receiving end of the countercultural revolution, and so on. But the cumulative details of the marriage eventually sprawl all over the novel’s straight, tight lines as if Tyler were creating a garden; as it turns out, in those first chapters, she’s saying, “Just wait for spring—I know what I’m doing.” And she does, of course. Before too long, The Amateur Marriage is teeming with life and artfully created mess, and when it’s all over, you mourn both the passing of Tyler’s creation and the approaching end of her characters’ lives.

My ongoing disciplinary troubles with the Polysyllabic Spree, the four hundred and thirty white-robed and utterly psychotic young men and women who control both the Believer and the minds of everyone who contributes to it, mean that I have to cram two months’ worth of reading into one column. (I no longer have any sense of where I’m going wrong, by the way. I’ve given up. I think I may have passed on some admittedly baseless gossip about the Gawain poet at the monthly editorial conference, and it didn’t go down well, but who knows, really?) So, in brief: Jeremy Lewis’s biography of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, is a tremendous piece of social history, which I have already written about in Time Out. (It was the same deal as with Spies—I recommend some-one else’s book, this time in print, and everyone rushes out to buy mine. See how it works? You’ve got to hand it to the people who think this stuff up.) And Walter Mosley’s Little Scarlett comprehensively rubbishes yet another theory this column has previously and unwisely expounded—that crime novels in a series are always inferior to what I believe the trade calls “stand-alones.” Easy Rawlins is one of probably scores of exceptions to the rule, possibly because one of Mosley’s aims in the Rawlins books is to write about race in twentieth-century America. Little Scarlett is set in L.A. during the Watts riots of 1965, and you never get the sense that you’re whiling away the time; the stakes are high, and both detective and book demonstrate a moral seriousness that you don’t find in many literary novels, never mind generic thrillers.

Seth Mnookin is yet another member of Violet Incredible’s literary set. So those of us who pretend we still know her since she went all Hollywood animated have dutifully read his book about Jayson Blair and the New York Times, even though the subject has nothing to do with us, for fear that we’ll be cast into the darkness, far away from the warm glow of celebrity. Luckily, Mnookin’s book is completely riveting: I doubt I’ll read much else about U.S. newspaper culture, so it’s just as well that this one is definitive. Mnookin’s thorough-ness—he explains with clarity and rigor how Blair and the NYT was an accident waiting to happen—could have resulted in desiccation, but it’s actually pretty juicy in all the right places. None of the outrage Blair caused makes much sense to us in England—you can make up whatever you want here, and you’ll never hear from a fact-checker or even an editor—so reading Hard News was like reading an Austen novel. You have to under-stand the context, the parameters of decency in an alien environment, to make any sense of it.

So I’m off on a book tour of the U.S. now, and I’m thinking of taking Barnaby Rudge with me. It’ll last me the entire three weeks, and it’s about the Gordon riots, apparently. I’ll bet you can’t wait for the next column.

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