Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January 2014

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January 2014

Nick Hornby
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  • The Goldfinch—Donna Tartt
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—John le Carré
  • Spike: An Intimate Memoir—Norma Farnes
  • An Officer and a Spy (Kindle)—Robert Harris


  • English for the Natives—Harry Ritchie
  • Mo’ Meta Blues—Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
  • An Officer and a Spy—Robert Harris
  • Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957–1959—David Kynaston

The Believer, in common with other distinguished publications (most notably the New York Times), now asks its contributors to answer questions intended to clarify their relationship with the books and authors they are reviewing. This was inevitable, I suppose, and perhaps even overdue, given the shockingly opportunistic way in which one or two Believer writers have used these pages to promote their nearest and dearest over the years: by my reckoning, this will be the sixth time that I have written about my brother-in-law in this column, for example. The publication of Harry Ritchie’s English for the Natives, regrettably in the same month as Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy, has caused something of a constitutional crisis at Believer Towers, and, after long and occasionally ill-tempered discussions, we have arrived at a compromise: the questionnaire intended to ensure scrupulous probity has been amended as follows. (I reproduce both questions and answers, so that Believer readers can see that we have nothing to hide.)


No. I first met him at the beginning of the 1990s, therefore, I have known him for less than a quarter of a century.


No. As we have gotten older, family and professional commitments have resulted in us meeting up only every three weeks or so.


No. He lived farther up and on the other side of the street, before moving out of the borough altogether.


No. Only at the most recent.


No. Only to the youngest.


No. I gave him a ticket to the football last night, for no reason whatsoever.

In other words, you can read on, safe in the knowledge that this isn’t some dodgy English old pals’ act. Ritchie (I always call him that) isn’t even English! He’s Scottish! He hates the English!

As I have explained probably too many times before, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” is a column about the books I’ve consumed in the previous month, and writers spend a lot of time consuming books written by friends and, sometimes, family. (Robert’s book is the second book by a family member to come out this year.) I could not write about them, of course, and sometimes, for various reasons, I don’t. Leaving them out, however, would mean that these pages do not truly or fairly reflect my reading life, and a true and fair reflection is kind of the point. And in any case, Harry’s book is about a subject that I’m interested in, something that we have spent time talking about over the last few years, and I think you might be interested in it, too.

Both of us spent time when we were younger teaching English as a foreign language, or “doing TEFL,” and it was only in the course of these jobs, taken, in my case, at least, out of desperation at an especially impecunious time of my life, that we learned properly how English works. Some of the things—the difference between the present perfect and the past simple, say: “he ate” versus “he has eaten”—we could recognize but not explain; other discoveries were entirely new to us, and thrilling enough to turn us into grammar nerds forever after. Did you know, for example, that there is an order of adjectives in English? We never say “brown old shoe,” and we never say “London red bus.” We put age before color, and color before place, without even thinking about it. Did you know that phrasal verbs are the bane of the English student’s life? A phrasal verb is a verb plus a preposition (or two) that renders the meaning of the verb sufficiently opaque to require the assistance of a dictionary. Look at put plus on—you put trousers on, and, in American especially, you put people on. You put people up on your sofa, you put up with these people when they won’t leave, you put your hands up in discos and during armed robberies.

Mr. Ritchie’s book is about the grammar we use rather than the grammar we should use. Indeed, the author is rather keen to pick fights with anyone who believes that there is such a thing as bad grammar—the phrase “common grammatical error,” he argues cleverly, is an oxymoron, because if everyone is making the same mistake, it’s not a mistake any longer; rather, our language has changed to accommodate it, and the pedants who huff and puff about ain’t and the abuse of the word hopefully are being swallowed up, Canute-like, by the sea of linguistic change.

Middle-class parents in England are currently alarmed by their children’s use of innit as a question tag, especially as the tag is used regardless of tense and number in the main clause: “They weren’t there, innit?” This, clearly, has been introduced by immigrants understandably bemused by the grammatical rule for such tags—find the auxiliary verb, keep the tense, reverse positive to negative or vice versa: “He didn’t, did he?” “She won’t, will she?” “They couldn’t have, could they?” A whole section of the British community has obviously thought, Fuck that, I’m just going to stick innit on the end of everything. Everyone will understand. And they do. Sir Harry’s point is that the more people use a language, the simpler it becomes; such innovations are proof of our language’s rude health rather than the opposite. Anyway, English for the Natives, like Carl Wilson’s little book about Céline Dion, and John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?, is essential reading for all relativists everywhere.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson isn’t a relativist, one suspects—or at least he wasn’t, in his formative years, when he developed his unlikely obsession with the record reviews in Rolling Stone. “The fact that a new, relatively unproven artist could get a four-and-a-half-star review in Rolling Stone blew my mind” is how he remembers his first response to Prince’s Dirty Mind. “I had a germ of an idea in my mind even at that age, and it came into focus pretty quickly, that I wanted to make records that were a part of the same set, records that critics would admire and that would be marked as important. You know: four-and-a-half-star records.” The teenage Ahmir wallpapered his bedroom with reviews; he still writes his own. “I draw the cover image in miniature and chicken-scratch in a fake byline.”

I can’t recall reading a music autobiography as charming as Mo’ Meta Blues. And I don’t wish to damn it with faint praise, either, if you’re one of those people who don’t like the smell of charm; it’s also smart, funny, insightful, stimulating, thrilling, and artfully constructed. (Ben Greenman, the novelist and New Yorker editor, is the co­writer, an unambiguous indicator of Thompson’s ambition.) But it’s the charm that hits you first. Questlove is as nerdy as any of us who love music. He’s nerdy about Brian Wilson and Neil Young, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, The Dark Side of the Moon and De La Soul. He’s one of us. One of me, anyway. And he’s probably one of you, too, because even if you’re not a music obsessive, you’re obsessive about some branch of the arts, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading these pages in this magazine.

Questlove is also a superlative drummer for an influential hip-hop band, however, and apologies for the stereotyping, but I’m guessing that you, like me, are not a hip-hop drummer. There are very few hip-hop drummers who aren’t Questlove, in fact, so his journey is a singular one. But such are the warmth and intelligence of his voice, and the compelling and real portrait of his childhood, that you never once feel excluded from it or mystified by it. When Thompson inadvertently offends Puffy and his friends, his fear is your fear; when Prince invites him roller-skating at two o’clock in the morning and asks him to put his phone away, apparently so that he can’t take a picture of Prince’s transparent roller skates—skates that leave multicolored sparks in their wake—our awe is his awe. He’s had a weird and remarkable career, and his recognition of its what-the-fuckness makes Mo’ Meta Blues deeply lovable. I am going to move to the United States just so that I can take the Classic Albums course that Questlove is currently teaching at NYU. I was once in the same room as he was, and didn’t have the nerve to say hello. I regret my cowardice even more bitterly now.

Sometimes it seems to me as though there’s some kind of strange debate about the comparative values of fiction and nonfiction, a debate that frequently encompasses gender issues, invariably because my own gender (male) is perceived as being so hopelessly inadequate: men prefer nonfiction, men like facts… men are a bit dim, really. A week or two back, the (male) rock star Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, told an interviewer that “novels are just a waste of fucking time… I just end up thinking, ‘This isn’t fucking true,’” thus neatly if crudely summarizing countless conversations I’ve had over the years with male doctors and male dentists and male taxi-drivers whenever the subject of how I earn a living comes up. Now is probably not the time to point out to Mr. Gallagher that truth comes in all sorts of guises and so on and so forth. But it is probably worth pointing out, maybe not to him but to anyone else who subscribes to the Gallagher school of literary criticism, both that my brother-in-law’s novel is fucking true—it’s a fictionalized but impeccably researched account of the extraordinary Dreyfus case—and that it feels fucking true only because of his skills as a lying novelist. (It’s brilliant, by the way, and you can trust me because I’m always looking for signs that I may one day become the undisputed heavyweight champion novelist of the whole family. Nothing here, worse luck.)

This Gradgrindian approach to literature is so clearly wrong-headed that I find myself feeling a little defensive about the amount of nonfiction I’ve read this month. I’m a sensitive guy! Really! I love fiction! The more made-up the better! Unless it’s about dragons, or other planets! I certainly feel the need to point out that even a book as fact-heavy as David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain isn’t all about the information, however. I’m not reading Kynaston’s long history of postwar Britain simply because I’m learning stuff, although that’s obviously part of the appeal. I’m reading it because it’s beautiful. Open the newest book in the sequence at random, as I have just done, and, on the face of it, beauty is in short supply:

Even so, for all the ennui, a Gallup poll a few weeks after Hancock’s radio episode revealed almost two-fifths of people not wanting places of entertainment to open on Sundays as on weekends, 41% disapproving of the idea of professional sport on Sundays, and 44% favouring the existing shorter opening hours for pubs on Sundays.

It’s not Gilead, I grant you, and there are a lot of details about town planning and social housing. But the cumulative effect is weirdly moving, and Kynaston’s painstaking, pointillistic approach to my country’s change and growth… Well, it’s got soul. Modernity Britain, subtitled Opening the Box, covers the years 1957 to 1959, the first two years of my life, and it’s shocking, of course, to learn that I was born into a time when only one in ten British households owned a refrigerator, and when the fascist Oswald Mosley was standing for Parliament. This is not a Britain I know anything about. But those two years are in there somewhere, a small part of me, and are a much more significant part of my mother and father, proud new parents with half an eye on their son’s future. Kynaston never loses his sense that it all means something, the by-elections and the TV variety shows, the trading stamps and the labor disputes. And he’s right, of course. The fabric of a nation, its habits and moods and tastes, its sudden rages and eccentric joys, the hunger of its people for peace and prosperity and comfort, do mean something. This reader would argue, however blokey it might sound, that it means as much as even the very best fiction. My advice to you: read stuff that’s made up and stuff that isn’t. Mix it up a little. Controversial, I know, but you don’t get to write a column as influential as this one without sticking your neck out sometimes. 


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