Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2008

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2008

Nick Hornby
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  • The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959—Tim Hinley, ed.


  • What Sport Tells Us About Life—Ed Smith
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—Sherman Alexie
  • The Darling—Russell Banks
  • The Rights of the Reader—Daniel Pennac

The best description I know of what it feels like to learn to read comes in Francis Spufford’s brilliant memoir The Child That Books Built:

When I caught the mumps, I couldn’t read; when I went back to school again, I could. The first page of The Hobbit was a thicket of symbols, to be decoded one at a time and joined hesitantly together…. By the time I reached The Hobbit’s last page, though, writing had softened, and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster, until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts. I had undergone the acceleration into the written word that you also experience as a change in the medium. In fact, writing had ceased to be a thing—an object in the world—and become a medium, a substance you look through.

Firstly, we should note that the first book Spufford ever read was The Hobbit, a book that I still haven’t picked up, partly because I am afraid I still won’t understand it. Secondly, Spufford caught the mumps just as he turned six—he is one of the cleverest people I have ever come across, and yet some parents with young children would be freaking out if their kids weren’t able to read by then. And lastly, I would just like to point out that you can’t fake a memory like this. Learning to read happens once and once only for most of us, and for the vast majority of adults in first-world countries it happened a long time ago. You have to dig deep, deep down into the bog of the almost-lost, and then carry what you have found carefully to the surface, and then you have to find the words and images to describe what you see on your spade. Perhaps Spufford’s amazing feat of recollection means nothing to you; but when I first read it, I knew absolutely that this was what happened to me: I too spooned up the jelly of meaning.

I turned back to Spufford’s book because my five-year-old is on the verge of reading. (Yeah, you read that right, Spufford. Five! And only just! Francis Spufford was born in 1964 and this book was published in 2003, so by my reckoning my son will have produced something as good as The Child That Books Built by the year 2040, or something slightly better by 2041.) Writing hasn’t softened for him: three-letter words are as in soluble as granite, and he can no more look through writing than he can look through his bedroom wall. The good news is that he’s almost frenetically motivated; the bad news is that he is so eager to learn because he has got it into his head that he will be given a Nintendo DS machine when he can read and write, which he argues that he can do now to his own satisfaction—he can write his own name, and read the words Mum, Dad, Spider, Man, and at least eight others. As far as he is concerned, literacy is something that he can dispense with altogether in a couple of months, when the Nintendo turns up. It will have served its purpose.

Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader, first published sixteen years ago in France, the author’s native country, is a really rather lovely book about all the things parents and teachers do to discourage the art and habit of reading, and all the things we could do to persuade young people that literacy is worth keeping about one’s person even after you’ve got it nailed. According to Pennac, we have spent most of our five-year-old son’s life teaching him that reading is something to be endured: we threaten to withdraw stories at bedtime, and then never follow through with the threat (“an unbearable punishment, for them and for us,” Pennac points out, and this is just one of the many moments of wisdom that will make you want him to be your adoptive dad); we dangle television and computers as rewards; we occasionally try to force him to read when he is demotivated, tired, bolshy. (“The lightness of our sentences stopped them getting bogged down: now having to mumble indecipherable letters stifles even their ability to dream,” says Pennac sadly.) All of these mistakes, it seems to me, are unavoidable at some time in the average parenting week, although Pennac does us a favor by exposing the perverse logic buried in them.

What’s great about The Rights of the Reader is Pennac’s tone—by turns wry, sad, amused, hopeful—and his endless fund of good sense: he likes his canon, but doesn’t want to torture you into reading it, and rights 2 and 3 (the Right to Skip and the Right Not to Finish a Book) are, we must remind ourselves, fundamental human rights. The French book about reading that’s been getting a lot of attention recently is Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which should surely be retitled You Need Some New Friends, Because the Ones You’ve Got Are Jerks: literary editors seem to think it’s zeitgeisty, but out in the world, grown-ups no longer feel the need to bullshit about literature, thank god. Pennac’s book is the one we should all be thinking about, because its author hasn’t given up. The Rights of the Reader is full of great quotes, too. Here’s one of my favorites, from Flannery O’Connor: “If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.” That one is dedicated to anyone who graduated from college and found themselves unable to read anything that came from the imagination.

Russell Banks’s The Darling was recommended to me—given to me, even—by the owner of a wonderful independent bookstore, Rakestraw Books, in Danville, California; booksellers know better than anyone that talking about books you have read is much more persuasive than attempting to sound smart about books you haven’t. It’s the second great novel about Africa by an American writer that I’ve read in the last year (I’m forbidden from talking about the other one by internal bureaucracy), although the creative impulse behind Banks’s book is much tougher to read. It’s in some ways a peculiar novel, in that it tracks the journey of a 1960s radical, the daughter of a famous pediatrician, as she travels all the way from the Weather Underground to war-torn Liberia, where she marries a local politician and takes care of chimpanzees. A crude synopsis is only likely to provoke the question “What the fuck?” but then, synopses are rarely much use when it comes to novels. Whatever prompted Banks to write The Darling, the material here provides him with an enormous and dazzling armory of ironies and echoes, and his narrator, Hannah, by turns passionately engaged and icily detached, is inevitably reminiscent of a Graham Greene character. This is a novel that provides a potted history of Liberia, a dreamy, extended meditation on the connections between humans and apes, a convincing examination of the internal life of an American refusenik, and an acute portrait of a mixed-race, cross-cultural marriage, and if you’re not interested in any of that, then we at the Believer politely suggest that you’d be happier with another magazine.

I nearly didn’t read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, because I had decided that, as we had both had young-adult novels published at around the same time, we were somehow in competition, and that his book was the Yankees, or Manchester United, or Australia, or any other sporting nemesis you care to name. And of course hearing that Alexie’s novel was great really didn’t help overcome my reluctance—rather, it merely hardened it. I’d like to think that by reading the book I have demonstrated some kind of maturity, and come to recognize that books are not like sports teams and therefore can’t play each other; mine can’t advance to the next round by dint of all-round physical superiority, no matter how thoroughly I coach it, no matter what diet I put it on, no matter how many steroids I force down its little throat. (If I thought that giving my novel performance-enhancing drugs would help it in any way, I’d do it, though, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.)

Anyway, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is, as I was told on my recent book tour by scores of unsupportive and thoughtless people, a terrific book, funny and moving and effortlessly engaging. The part-time Indian of the title is Junior, a hydrocephalic weak-ling whose decision to enroll at the white high school at the edge of his reservation costs him both his closest friendship and respect from his community; it’s a  coming-of-age story, but it’s fresh: I for one knew nothing about the world that Alexie describes, and in any case Junior’s voice—by turns defiant, worldly wise, sad, and scared—and Ellen Forney’s cute and sympathetic drawings give the book the feeling of a modern YA classic. And, seeing as the best YA fiction (see previous columns) is as punchy and engaging as anything you might come across in a bookstore, it’s for you, too. If you see Sherman Alexie’s novel getting a beating somewhere—in the ring, at a racetrack, or anywhere else you’re likely to see books competing—then demand a urine test, because some-body’s cheating.

I have written about Ed Smith before: his last book, On and Off the Field, was a diary of his season, and as he’s a cricketer, I presumed that my banging on about a sport you didn’t know, understand, or care about would annoy you, in a satisfying way. It’s great, then, that he has another book coming out, this time a collection of essays dealing with the areas where sport (quite often cricket) is able to shed light on other areas of life. In the first essay he explains why there will never be another Don Bradman, but as you lot don’t even know that you’ve missed the first Bradman altogether, it’s a waste of time and column inches going into any further detail, so that’s what I’ll do. Bradman’s batting average, the New York Times concluded in its 2001 obituary after some fancy mathematics, meant that he was better than Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb; nobody has got anywhere close to his record since, just as in baseball nobody has managed a .400 sea-son since Ted Williams in 1941. (We weren’t playing professional sports in 1941, you know. We were too busy fighting Nazis—an old grievance, maybe, but not one that anyone here is likely to forget for another few hundred years.) Smith argues that the increasing professional-ism of sports means that it’s much harder for sporting giants to tower quite as high over their peers: greater defensive competence and organization have resulted in a bunching somewhere nearer the middle. The bad players and teams are much better than they used to be, which means that the good ones find it harder to exert their superiority so crushingly. And when it comes to athletics, we can’t get much faster, according to a Harvard evolutionary geneticist—“the laws of oxygen exchange will not permit it.” Did you know that horses have stopped breaking racing records? They’ve now been bred to the point where they simply can’t get any faster. I could eat this stuff up with a spoon.

You’ll enjoy this: when the cricketer Fred Titmus made his professional debut, the tannoy announcer felt obliged to correct an error on the score card: “F. J. Titmus should, of course, read Titmus, F. J.” An amateur player (a “gentleman,” in the class-bound language of cricket) was allowed to put his initials before his sur-name; a player—in other words, a professional—had to put his initials after. Titmus was being put in his place—in 1949. What a stupid country. This is why I have repeatedly turned down a knighthood. Knighthoods are no good to anyone, if they want to get on in Britain. I’m holding out for a lordship.

The chapter on what we can learn from amateurism (a word which, it’s easy to forget, has its roots in the old-school, first-lesson amo amas amat) is of value to pretty much any of us who have managed to end up doing what we love for a living. Anyone in this privileged position who has never for a moment experienced self-conscious-ness, or endured a bout of second-guessing, or ended up wondering what it was they loved in the first place is either mad or isn’t getting paid a living wage (and now I come to think about it, pretty much every writer I have ever met belongs in one of these two camps); Smith’s entertaining exploration of creativity and inspiration would be every bit as useful to a poet or a songwriter (and he ropes Dylan in to help make his case) as it would be to an opening batsman. Ha! So you might actually have to read this book about cricket! Even better!

Next month, apparently, this column will be entitled “Stuff I’ve Been Watching” (for one issue only). I only watch 30 Rock and Match of the Day. I’d skip it, if I were you, unless you want to know whether Lee Dixon is a better postmatch pundit than Alan Shearer. Actually, I’ll tell you now, and save you the trouble: he is. Defenders are always better analysts than forwards. In this, as in so many other areas, sport is exactly like life.

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