February 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby


  • Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste—Carl Wilson
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson—John Green and David Levithan


  • The Anthologist—Nicholson Baker
  • Brooklyn—Colm Tóibín
  • Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges—Donald Spoto
  • Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste—Carl Wilson

It’s a wet Sunday morning, and I’m sitting on a sofa reading a book. On one side of me is my eldest son, Danny, who is seventeen and autistic. His feet are in my lap, and he’s watching a children’s TV program on his iPad. Or rather, he’s watching a part of a children’s TV program, over and over again: a song from Postman Pat entitled “Handyman Song.” Danny is wearing headphones, but I’ve just noticed that they’re not connected properly, so I can hear every word of the song anyway. On my other side is another son, my eight-year-old, Lowell. He’s watching the Sunday morning football highlights program Goals on Sunday. I’m caught between them, trying to finish Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist.

“Look at this, Dad,” Lowell says.

He wants me to watch Johan Elmander’s goal for Bolton at Wolves, the second in a 3–2 win. It’s one of the best goals of the season so far, and at the time of writing has a real chance of winning the BBC’s Goal of the Month award, but I only have thirteen pages of the novel to go, so I only glance up for a moment.

“Close the book,” Lowell says.

“I saw the goal. I’m not going to close the book.”

“Close the book. You didn’t see the replay.”

He tries to grab the book out of my hand, so we wrestle for a moment while I turn the corner of the page down. I watch the replay. He’s satisfied. I return to The Anthologist, football commentary in one ear and the Postman Pat song in the other.

Would Nicholson Baker mind? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t choose for me to be reading his work under these circumstances, and I’m with him all the way. I’d rather be somewhere else, too. I’d rather be on a sun-lounger in southern California, in the middle of a necessarily childless reading tour, just for the thirty minutes it’s going to take me to get to the end of the novel. I would savor every single minute of the rest of a wet English November Sunday with three sons, just so long as I was given half an hour—not even that!—of sunshine and solitude. I hope Baker would be pleased by my determination and absorption, though. I wasn’t throwing his book away by submitting it to the twin assaults of Postman Pat and Goals on Sunday. I was hanging on to it for dear life.

It’s a wonderful novel, I think, unusual, generous, educational, funny. The eponymous narrator, Paul Chowder, is a broke poet whose girlfriend has just left him; he’s trying to write an introduction to an anthology of verse while simultaneously worrying about the rent and the history of rhyme. Chowder loves rhyme: he thinks that the blank verse of modernism was all a fascist plot, and that Swinburne was the greatest rhymer “in the history of human literature.” Indeed, The Anthologist is full of artless, instructive digressions about all sorts of people (Swinburne, Vachel Lindsay, Louise Bogan) and all sorts of things (iambic pentameter) that I knew almost nothing about. Chowder might be an awful mess, but you trust him on all matters relating to poetry.

I developed something of a crush on Elizabeth Bishop after reading The Anthologist. I downloaded an MP3 of her reading “The Fish,” and on an overnight work trip to Barcelona I took with me a copy of Bishop’s collected poems but no clean socks, which is exactly the sort of thing that Paul Chowder might have done. I would say that in my half century on this planet so far, I have valued clean socks above poetry, so The Anthologist may literally have changed my life, and not in a good way. Luckily, it turns out that you can buy socks in Barcelona. Nice ones, too.

Pretty much everything I have read in the last month is related to the production of art and/or entertainment. Unlike all the others, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is not about art (and don’t get sniffy about Céline Dion until I tell you what Carl Wilson has to say about her); it’s about a young girl emigrating to the U.S. from a small town in Ireland in the 1950s. But as I am currently attempting to adapt Brooklyn for the cinema, it would be disingenuous to claim that the production of art and/or entertainment didn’t cross my mind while I was re-reading it.

I haven’t read a novel twice in six months for decades, and the experience was illuminating. It wasn’t that I had misremembered anything, particularly, nor (I like to think) had I misunderstood much, first time around, but I had certainly forgotten the proximity of narrative events in relation to each other. Some things happened sooner than I was prepared for, and others much later—certainly much later than I can hope to get away with in a screenplay. You can do anything in a novel, provided the writing is good enough: you can introduce rounded, complex characters ten pages from the end, you can gloss over years in a paragraph. Film is a clumsier and more literal medium.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Nick Hornby lives in North London.

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