In More Baths, Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family and Time Itself Nick Hornby shares his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns.
You talk about “clusters of smaller discoveries and awakenings” that led you to appreciate writers and artists you never would have bothered with earlier in your life. How do you hope to spark similar awakenings in your readers?
I think the style of the column is crucial. One of the things that occasionally frustrates me about ordinary book reviews is that people have been paid to read those books—it’s their job. For most people, reading time is actually very precious, yet reviewers tend to be very lordly about the act of reading. There’s an unwritten assumption that it comes before anything, and that of course you’ll want to read a 700-page biography of Pushkin. I think I’m writing for people who care a lot about books, but who don’t read as much as they’d like to, because of work and kids and sport on TV. That’s what I’m like, although I have more “spare time” (i.e., I work for myself) during the day than a lot of people. So in that context, if I tell you that a biography of Montaigne is worth reading, I think you’re more likely to listen.
Despite its less-than-flashy subject matter, you make Fishing in Utopia, about the author’s experiences in Sweden, sound appealing. What other strange finds have you discovered in out-of-the-way bookstores?
Ha! I live in the middle of London, and I have three kids, and I don’t get to visit out-of-the-way bookstores very often. Islington is the home of the liberal intelligentsia, according to media stereotype, and we no longer have a single independent store. Just recently, a charity bookshop opened right down the road from where I work, and I was so happy to browse again, to walk into a shop and end up walking out with something I’d never thought of reading, but which suddenly looks interesting—on this occasion, Selina Hastings’s biography of Rosamond Lehmann. (I didn’t walk out without paying, by the way.) My browsing is done mostly online or in chains. And I quite often get drawn into buying out-of-print books that I’ve been led to by other books. The past is everywhere online, and alive.
What’s with the Mr. Gum books? They are the first children’s series you write about in your column.
There are many, many things about the Mr. Gum series I loved, but above all, it got my boys, aged eight and seven at the time, interested in books. Or rather, it got my boys interested in Mr. Gum books. I’m sure just about every parent of boys has the same problem with reading. I read all the time when I was a kid, but I grew up in a country with three TV channels and an hour of children’s programming. Reading was as close as I could get to re-creating the experience of watching TV. It’s not the e-book that will kill fiction. It’s the machines enabling people to do anything else but read fiction while they’re traveling and waiting for dental appointments that will kill fiction.