Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March 2004

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March 2004

Nick Hornby
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  • The Amateur Marriage—Anne Tyler
  • The Eclipse—Antonella Gambotto
  • The Complete Richard Hannay— John Buchan
  • Selected Letters—Gustave Flaubert
  • Vietnam-Perkasie—W. D. Ehrhart


  • Some of Flaubert’s letters
  • Not Even Wrong—Paul Collins
  • How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World—Francis Wheen
  • Liar’s Poker—Michael Lewis
  • Some of Greenmantle—John Buchan
  • How to Give Up Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good—Gillian Riley

So this last month was, as I believe you people say, a bust. I had high hopes for it, too; it was Christmas-time in England, and I was intending to do a little holiday comfort reading—David Copperfield and a couple of John Buchan novels, say, while sipping an eggnog and heroically ploughing my way through some enormous animal carcass or other. I’ve been a father for ten years now, and not once have I been able to sit down and read several hundred pages of Dickens during the Christmas holidays. Why I thought it might be possible this year, now that I have twice as many children, is probably a question best discussed with an analyst: somewhere along the line, I have failed to take something on board. (Hey, great idea: if you have kids, give your partner reading vouchers next Christmas. Each voucher entitles the bearer to two hours’ reading-time while kids are awake. It might look like a cheapskate present, but parents will appreciate that it costs more in real terms than a Lamborghini.)

If I’m honest, however, it wasn’t just snot-nosed children who crawled between and all over me and Richard Hannay. One of the reasons I wanted to write this column, I think, is because I assumed that the cultural highlight of my month would arrive in book form, and that’s true, for probably eleven months of the year. Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. “The Magic Flute” v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. “The Last Supper” v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception—“Blonde on Blonde” might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire’s chances against Citizen Kane. And every now and again you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature twenty-nine times out of thirty. Even if you love movies and music as much as you do books, it’s still, in any given four-week period, way, way more likely you’ll find a great book you haven’t read than a great movie you haven’t seen, or a great album you haven’t heard: the assiduous consumer will eventually exhaust movies and music. Sure, there will always be gaps and blind spots, but I’ve been watching and listening for a long time, and I’ll never again have the feeling everyone has with literature: that we can’t get through the good novels published in the last six months, let alone those published since publishing began. This month, however, the cultural highlight of the month was a rock and roll show—two shows, actually, one of which took place in a pub called the Fiddler’s Elbow in Kentish Town, North London. The Fiddler’s Elbow is not somewhere you would normally expect to find your most memorable drink of the month, let alone your most memorable spiritual moment, but there you go: God really is everywhere. Anyway, against all the odds, and even though they were fighting above their weight, these shows punched the books to the floor. And they were good books, too.

Five or six years ago, a friend in Philly introduced me to a local band called Marah. Their first album had just come out, on an indie label, and it sounded great to me, like the Pogues reimagined by the E Street Band, full of fire and tunes and soul and banjos. There was a buzz about it, and they got picked up by Steve Earle’s label E-Squared; their next album got noticed by Greil Marcus and Stephen King (who proudly wore a Marah T-shirt in a photo-shoot) and Springsteen himself, and it looked like they were off and away. Writing this down, I can suddenly see the reason why it didn’t happen for them, or at least, why it hasn’t happened yet. Steve Earle, Stephen King, Greil Marcus, Bruce, me… none of us is under a hundred years old. The band is young, but their referents, the music they love, is getting on a bit, and in an attempt to address this problem, they attempted to alienate their ancient fans with a noisy modern rock album. They succeeded in the alienation, but not in finding a new audience, so they have been forced to retreat and retrench and rethink. At the end of the Fiddler’s Elbow show they passed a hat around, which gives you some indication of the level of retrenchment going on. They’ll be OK. Their next album will be spectacular, and they’ll sell out Madison Square Garden, and you’ll all be boasting that you read a column by a guy who saw them in the Fiddler’s Elbow.

Anyway, the two shows I saw that week were spectacular, as good as anything I’ve seen with the possible exception of the Clash in ’79, Prince in ’85, and Springsteen on the River tour. Dave and Serge, the two brothers who are to Marah what the Gallaghers are to Oasis, played the Fiddler’s Elbow as if it were Giants Stadium, and even though it was acoustic, they just about blew the place up. They were standing on chairs and lying on the floor, they were funny, they charmed everyone in the pub apart from an old drunk sitting next to the drum kit (a drummer turned up halfway through the evening with his own set, having played a gig elsewhere first), who put his fingers firmly in his ears during Serge’s extended harmonica solo. (His mate, meanwhile, rose unsteadily to his feet and started clapping along.) It was utterly bizarre and very moving: most musicians wouldn’t have bothered turning up, let alone almost killing themselves. And I was reminded—and this happened the last time I saw them play, too—how rarely one feels included in a live show. Usually you watch, and listen, and drift off, and the band plays well or doesn’t and it doesn’t matter much either way. It can actually be a very lonely experience. But I felt a part of the music, and a part of the people I’d gone with, and, to cut this short before the encores, I didn’t want to read for about a fortnight afterwards. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t because of the holidays, and I wanted to listen to Marah, but I didn’t want to read no book. I was too itchy, too energized, and if young people feel like that every night of the week, then, yes, literature’s dead as a dodo. (In an attempt to get myself back on course, I bought Bill Ehrhardt’s book Vietnam-Perkasie, because he comes Marah-endorsed, and provided the inspiration for “Round Eye Blues,” one of their very best songs. I didn’t read the thing, though. And their next album is tentatively entitled 20,000 Streets under the Sky, after a Patrick Hamilton novel—I’m going to order that and not read it, too.)

It wasn’t as if I didn’t try; it was just that very little I picked up fit very well with my mood. I bought Flaubert’s letters after reading the piece about Donald Barthelme’s required reading list in the Believer [October, 2003], but they weren’t right—or at least, they’re not if one chooses to read them in chronological order. The young Flaubert wasn’t very rock and roll. He was, on this evidence, kind of a prissy, nerdy kid. “friend, I shall send you some of my political speeches, liberal constitutionalist variety,” he wrote to Ernest Chevalier in January 1831; he’d just turned nine years old. Nine! Get a life, kid! (Really? You wrote those? They’re pretty good books. Well… Get another one, then.) I am probably taking more pleasure than is seemly in his failure to begin the sentence with a capital letter. You know, as in, Jesus, he didn’t know the first thing about basic punctuation! How did this loser ever get to be a writer?

Franc is Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was a better fit, because, well, it rocks: it’s fast and smart and very funny, despite being about how we have betrayed the Enlightenment by retreating back to the Dark Ages. Wheen wrote a warm, witty biography of Marx a few years back, and has a unique, sharp, enviable, and trustworthy mind. Here he dishes it out two-fisted to Tony Blair and George W. Bush, Deepak Chopra and Francis Fukuyama, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Jacques Derrida, and by the end of the book you do have the rather dizzying sensation that you, the author, and maybe Richard Dawkins are the only remotely sane people in the entire world. It’s difficult to endorse this book without com-mitting a few cardinal Believer sins: as you may have noticed, some of the people that Wheen accuses of talking bullshit are, regrettably, writers, and in a chapter entitled “The Demolition Merchants of Reality,” Wheen lumps deconstructionism in with creationism. In other words, he claims there isn’t much to choose from between Pat Buchanan and Jacques Lacan when it comes to mumbo-jumbo, and I’m sorry to say that I laughed a lot. The next chapter, “The Catastrophists,” gives homeopathy, astrology, and UFOlogy a good kicking, and you’ll find yourself conveniently forgetting the month you gave up coffee and mint because you were taking arnica three times a day. (Did you know that Jacques Benveniste, one of the world’s leading homeopathic “scientists,” now claims that you can email homeopathic remedies? Yeah, see, what you do is you can take the “memory” of the diluted substance out of the water electromagnetically, put it on your computer, email it, and play it back on a sound card into new water. I mean, that could work, right?)

Richard Dawkins, Wheen recalls, once pointed out that if an alternative remedy proves to be efficacious—that is to say, if it is shown to have curative properties in rigorous medical trials—then “it ceases to be an alternative; it simply becomes medicine.” In other words, it’s only “alternative” so long as it’s been shown not to be any bloody good. I found it impossible not to apply this helpful observation to other areas of life. Maybe a literary novel is just a novel that doesn’t really work, and an art film merely a film that people don’t want to see…. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World is a clever-clogs companion to Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men; and as it’s about people of both sexes and every conceivable hue, it’s arguably even more ambitious.

I read Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s book about bond-traders in the eighties, for two reasons, one of which was Wheen-inspired: he made me want to try and be more clever, especially about grown-up things like economics. Plus I’d read Lewis’s great Moneyball a couple of months previously [see “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” Dec. 2003/Jan. 2004], so I already knew that he was capable of leading me through the minefields of my own ignorance. It turns out, though, that the inter-national money markets are more complicated than baseball. These guys buy and sell mortgages! They buy and sell risk! But I haven’t got a clue what any of that actually means! This isn’t Michael Lewis’s fault—he really did try his best, and in any case you kind of romp through the book anyway: the people are pretty compelling, if completely unlike anyone you might meet in real life. At one point, Lewis describes an older trader throwing a ten-dollar bill at a young colleague about to take a business flight. “Hey, take out some crash insurance for yourself in my name,” the older guy says. “I feel lucky.” As a metaphor for what happens on the trading floor, that’s pretty hard to beat.

Francis Wheen’s book and Paul Collins’s Not Even Wrong were advance reading copies that arrived through the post. I’m never going to complain about receiving free early copies of books, because quite clearly there’s nothing to complain about, but it does introduce a rogue element into one’s otherwise carefully plotted reading schedule. I had no idea I wanted to read Wheen’s book until it arrived, and it was because of Wheen that I read Lewis, and then Not Even Wrong turned up and I wanted to read that too, and Buchan’s Greenmantle got put to one side, I suspect forever. Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have this agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g. books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path.

Having said that I hardly ever read books about autism. I have now read two in the last few weeks. Paul Collins, occasionally of this parish, is another parent of an autistic kid, and Not Even Wrong, like Charlotte Moore’s George and Sam, is a memoir of sorts. The two books are complementary, though; while writing unsentimentally but movingly about his son Morgan’s diagnosis and the family’s response, Collins trawls around, as is his wont, for historical and contemporary illustration and resonance, and finds plenty. There’s Peter the Wild Boy, who became part of the royal household in the early eighteenth century, and who met Pope, Addison, Steele, Swift, and Defoe—he almost certainly played for our team. (Autistic United? Maybe Autistic Wanderers is better.) And Collins finds a lot of familiar traits among railway-timetable collectors, and Microsoft boffins, and outsider artists…. I’m happy that we’re living through these times of exceptionally written and imaginative memoirs, despite the incessant whine you hear from the books pages; Collins’s engaging, discursive book isn’t as raw as some, but in place of rawness there is thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness is never a bad thing. I even learned stuff, and you can’t often say that of a memoir.

New Year, New Me, another quick read of Gillian Riley’s How to Give Up Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good. I have now come to think of Riley as our leading cessation theorist; she’s brilliant, but now I need some-one who deals with the practicalities.

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