the contextual life

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Books for Readers and Writers: More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby

with 6 comments

As a book blogger, I’m always on the lookout for well written reviews and books on the craft of nonfiction writing. I particularly enjoy pop culture essay collections, finding them ripe for dissection and emulation. There are few critics out there whose style is more entertaining than Nick Hornby’s when he writes his book column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” for the Believer, a literary magazine known for it’s kindly reviews and quirky content.

Hornby’s column is not so much a review of books as it is a conversation about reading books. In fact, in one essay he calls it “a monthly column about reading” so I seem to have understood it correctly. More often than not he mentions no fewer than three books he’s read the previous month, with it not uncommon to have one or two unfinished at the time of writing.

In the first essay in More Baths Less Talking, the latest collection of these columns spanning two and a half years (May 2010 to Nov/Dec 2011), Hornby admits, “I am less than a third of the way through Austerity Britain, but I have read enough to know that this is a major work of social history: readable, brilliantly researched, informative, and gripping.” For anyone who write about books there are no words to express the sense of freedom that washes over you after a sentence like that.

Each column begins with a list of books bought that month and, immediately following, a list of books read. As many readers will understand, books from the former don’t always make it into the latter. Getting in the way are “Other books, other moods, other obligations, other appetites, other reading journeys,” he says. At first it was tempting to flip ahead, to read the tops of each column to see what I could look forward to–I blame this on some primal attraction to lists that we humans have–but then I realized I was ruining the fun, denying myself the anticipation of an unspoken narrative unfolding sequentially.

After a few columns I began to give myself a moment to process which books I’d hoped he’d read before jumping to see what I could expect to see discussed. It quickly became an interactive experience–full of hope, excitement, and disappointment.

As Hornby promises in the introduction, he reads read widely and, I would add, unpredictably. For fellow bookshelf adventurers, the serendipitous nature of Hornby’s literary promiscuity is easily recognizable. The current month’s crop of books read lead to books bought in the next. A subject or brief mention inevitably brings about new curiosities, however tangential, and inspires subsequent shopping trips.

Throughout his columns, Hornby is aware of his audience, and sometimes addresses them directly. To go back to Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 by David Kynaston, a book you’ll remember from above that he hadn’t finished at the time of the writing the column, he mentions that it will be “of no interest whatsoever to the readership of this magazine.” That may be true but he also knows his readers well enough–you get the sense they are closely allied with his own tastes–that he plucks out some fascinating details perfectly suited to Believer subscribers: “Two of the most distinctive looks in rock and roll were provided by the NHS, by the way, John Lennon’s specs of choice were the 422 Panto Round Oval; meanwhile, Elvis Costello favored the 524 Contour.”

While I admit to buying a few books mentioned (Peter Pan being one of them oddly enough), “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” is not about recommendations per se, instead it’s about observing and, if you allow yourself, sharing in a bibliophile’s journey. Hornby’s process makes you think about your own. You’ll soon analyze why you jump from one book to another and consider both the calculation and randomness at play in your own reading choices. For Hornby, sometimes he needs to read for work, other times he follows through on a suggestion, or, as was the case in this particular collections, sometimes a book is a gift. These varied reasons lead to humorous, and sometimes enlightening, commentary, bound to echo your own experiences:

Surely we all occasionally buy books because of a daydream we’re having–a little fantasy about the people we might turn into one day, when our lives are different, quieter, more introspective, and when all the urgent reading, whatever that might be, has been done. We never arrive at that point, needless to say, but Fishing in Utopia–quirky, obviously smart, quiet, and contemplative–is exactly the sort of thing I was going to pick up when I became someone else.

More Baths Less Talking will make you want to keep lists, it will make you look at books differently, and most importantly, it will make you want to approach reviewing as Hornby does–conversationally, with clever anecdotes, and a personal touch rarely seen in traditional criticism. Buy it, study it, read, write.

::[Links]::
Find More Baths Less Talking at your local bookstore
Nick Hornby talks to Publishers Weekly about the collection
Read Nick Hornby’s column at the Believer

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Written by Gabrielle

August 28, 2012 at 6:58 am

6 Responses

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  1. Great post. I also love his column and quite agree that it’s nice to remember that there are plenty of “imperfect” readers out there. The stacks by my bed and on my night stand are ever changing, depending on what I feel like reading that night. And that’s ok.

  2. Wow! great writing there..you have challenged me ,i am going to do better ..keep it up.

    crazysafari2

    August 29, 2012 at 2:08 am

  3. […] more about the Believer columns I mentioned, you can read about the new book, which collates them here – it must be a Nick Hornby sort of […]

  4. Hi Gabrielle, been meaning to drop by and leave a comment seeing as though I’ve made a ping…I’ve always thought these were excellent columns. The Books Bought, Books Read lists were a revelation to me in terms of normalising my own behavior. Great review too. Did you ever read Polysyllabic Spree?

    Kate

    August 30, 2012 at 7:05 am

  5. […] Gabrielle Gantz on Nick Hornby’s More Baths Less Talking. […]

  6. I love Nick Hornby; if I have the chance, I will read any book of his that I come across. And I’ve previously read his other book like this (collection of columns in regards to reading), but I can’t remember the name right now. Very much enjoyed it and based on that, I agree with what you’ve said here; even if you have no interest in the books he talks about, or never want to read them, it’s still fascinating to read his witty responses to them. I’ll have to check this out.

    wonderinggrace

    September 15, 2012 at 1:05 pm


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