In “Shakespeare Wrote for Money,” Nick Hornby writes, “The annoying thing about reading is that you can never get the job done…reading begets reading—that’s sort of the point of it, surely?—and anybody who never deviates from a set list of books is intellectually dead anyway.”
The book is the third installment of collections of Hornby’s monthly book review column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” for The Believer. And the quote neatly sums up Hornby’s entire approach to reviewing books: he writes as a fellow reader, guiding us on his intellectual journey that takes him from one book to the next and his critical response to the books—not objectively, but in the context of what else he’s been reading and thinking about.
Most critics would never dare let their literary voice sound as much like a punter as Hornby does, but Hornby’s authority is saved not just by his clever insights and hilarious turns-of-phrase, but by his straight talk about the life of a reader. Each month, the column starts with a list of “Books Read” and “Books Bought.” In his first column, republished in “The Polysyllabic Spree,” he explains his overly optimistic book-buying policy: “I don’t want anyone writing in to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read. I know that already. I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less. My intentions are good. Anyway it’s my money. And I’ll bet you do it too.”
He writes candidly and incisively about his reading habits, which are all too familiar, stating, “The truth is, I’ve been reading more short books recently because I need to bump up the numbers in the Books Read column.” When he finally decides to embark on “David Copperfield,” he refers to it as “Dickensian nutrition” and talks about how after reading short, easy or trashy books, you find you need something “nutritional” to balance your diet.
Hornby’s reviews articulately capture how we readers think: we feel compelled to read things that, as he calls them, “scary” or “grown-up” critics applaud, but ultimately we are thrilled when we can append “and not boring!” to someone’s praise about a certain book. On that note, after penning his first young adult novel, he was delighted to discover a panoply of unknown masterpieces in that genre, which he persuasively commends.
He also discusses the inherent usefulness of the “Alex Awards,” “a list of ten adult books that…will appeal to younger readers,” or “in other words, ten books that aren’t boring.” After looking through the list of winners, he starts to think about what other novels could have won the awards—“Great Expectations” or “Pride and Prejudice.” As he puts it, “if a book couldn’t have made that list, then it’s probably not worth reading.”
Hornby is incredibly astute. When reviewing a collection of George Orwell’s brilliant essays, including “Books v. Cigarettes,” his pithy remark that Orwell’s “prose is beyond reproach, muscular, readable, accessible” could replace hours of my extolling its virtues. When discussing the impeccably observed “Sam and Me,” a nonfiction book about having an autistic child, he divulges his own experiences—he has an autistic son—convincing you unreservedly to read the book, even if you never had prior interest in autism. His insights into the meta-narrative in “David Copperfield” convinced me to reread it; though one of my favorite books, it’s also a huge time commitment.
After a few years’ hiatus, Hornby is back to writing his regular monthly column for The Believer, and I’m now a subscriber. Hornby’s reviews are entirely unique: lovably unpretentious, clever, intelligent and sure to provide some useful recommendations. Best of all, what causes me to quote him endlessly—and laugh out loud, repeatedly, in coffee shops or on public transit—is his very honest meta-narrative about what it is to be a reader: all of the joy, embarrassment and silly habits that come with it.