“All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal…With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.” – Nick Hornby
I’m not sure how I missed Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books when it was released a few years ago. If you don’t know him, Hornby is the English author of novels like About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity. (All three became movies — Fever Pitch twice.) The book is a collection of ten years of Hornby’s columns for the magazine The Believer. Once a month, Hornby would list all the books he bought and all of the books he managed to read that month, then he’d write about the ones he’d read. By my count, he read about 60 in the first year alone, so he was active.
Hornby is everything you want in someone writing about books: cheeky, wry humor; self-aware, non-nerdy. Ten Years in the Tub is a fun read precisely because it’s a window into a book lover’s soul. A funny book lover. And if you’re reading Farnam Street, you’re probably a book lover, or at least a liker.
Most heavy readers can, for instance, pretty well relate to Hornby’s ranging between despair and cheeriness over the fact that he can’t seem to remember what he reads:
I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality. But when I tried to recall anything about [the book Stop-Time] other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather? Or was that This Boy’s Life? And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of say, fifteen and forty, I haven’t even read the books I think I’ve read. I can’t tell you how depressing this is. What’s the fucking point?
Then, just a few months later:
A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that, if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time. I remember the punch line of The Sirens of Titan, but everything else was as fresh as a daisy…I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes.
Hornby’s pugilistic description of a struggle to read the Victorian novel No Name by Wilkie Collins is a classic; he heartily recommends it when he’s about 200 pages through, and then quickly reverses course in the following month’s column as he realizes the book is an absolute slog for the final 400 or so. This reminded me of my attempts to read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky years ago. (Hornby seems to have competed the task, I gave up.)
We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly, and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and airplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes–usually late at night in bed–he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through twenty or thirty pages, it felt to me as though I’d socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses. And still he kept coming back for more. Only in the past fifty-odd pages, after I’d landed several of these blows, did old Wilkie show any signs of buckling under the assault. He was pretty tough for a man of nearly one hundred and eighty. Hats off to him.
He then goes on to offer a refund to any readers who bought the book on his recommendation. (Like I said, cheeky.)
Hornby struggles, as we all do, with the long-versus-short book conundrum. It’s hard to commit to the long ones, especially if you know reading it will take work, but at least they tend to stick because of the commitment needed. Not always so with the lighter reads. (The best solution to the long books, of course, is to commit with discipline to a digestible volume amount every day.)
The truth is, I’ve been reading more short books recently because I need to bump up the numbers in the Books Read column–six of this month’s were really pretty scrawny…But the problem with short novels is that you can take liberties with them: you know you’re going to get through them no matter what, so you never set aside the time or commitment that a bigger book requires. I fucked Old School up; I should have read it in a sitting, but I didn’t, and I never gave it a chance to leave its mark. We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read too.
For any parents out there, Hornby hits a familiar note in a passage about trying to get some reading done over a Christmas holiday…a seemingly modest goal…
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.)
And finally, Hornby reminds us, the challenge and frustration of being a book-lover trying to cover a lot of ground is that the best laid plans often go awry. (For those of us who don’t get books sent to us for free, substitute an Amazon addiction, or, say, a Farnam Street membership as the culprits of having too many books coming down the funnel.)
Francis Wheen’s book and Paul Collins’ 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 the 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.
So, here’s our recommendation: First, learn How to Read a Book. Then pick up Hornby’s charming book for some inspiration. As you watch Hornby flit from David Copperfield, to Moneyball, to literary biographies of obscure early 20th century novelists, you realize it’s a book that reminds you why you love books. And it’s a reminder that people who love books are in a certain kooky fraternity for life.