June 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby


  • Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America—Lawrence W. Levine
  • Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture—John Seabrook
  • The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism—Thomas W. Evans
  • The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America—James Sullivan
  • London Belongs to Me—Norman Collins


  • Unfamiliar Fishes—Sarah Vowell
  • Norwood—Charles Portis
  • The Imperfectionists—Tom Rachman
  • Mr. Gum and the Power Crystals—Andy Stanton
  • Mr. Gum and the Dancing Bear—Andy Stanton

My friendship with the writer Sarah Vowell—history buff, TV and radio personality, occasional animated character—is now fifteen years old. For the first decade or so, it was pretty straightforward: whenever I was in New York, we would sit in a park staring at a statue of an obscure but allegedly important American figure, and she would talk about it while I nodded and smoked. Over the last few years, however, it has become complicated to the extent that it has started to resemble one of those Greek myths where the hero (in this case, me) is asked to perform tasks by some enigmatic and implacable goddess (her) or monster (also her). Vowell isn’t as well known in the U.K. as she should be—we have different chat shows, for a start, and because of the awesomely uncompromising insularity of her writing, her books aren’t published here. So, as one of her few English fans, I have been taking the literary challenges that she throws across the Atlantic personally. In my mind, at least, it goes like this. I tell her that I am an enormous admirer of her work, and she says, “In that case, I am going to write a book about the museums of the assassinated American presidents, excluding the most recent, and therefore the only one you are interested in. Will you read it?” I read it, loved it, told her so.

“I see that you are a worthy English opponent, so I will have to try harder. I will now make you read a book about New England Puritans—not the Plymouth Pilgrims, but the more obscure (and more self-denying) Massachusetts Bay crowd.” I read it, loved it, asked her to hit me with something a little less accessible.

And now she has come roaring back with Unfamiliar Fishes, a history of Hawaii, although obviously it’s not a complete history of Hawaii, because a complete history of Hawaii would not have intimidated the English reader to quite the required extent, and might have contained some fun facts about Bette Midler. Vowell wisely chose to concentrate on the nineteenth century, post-1820, when her old friends from New England sailed around the entire American continent in order to tell the natives that everything they had hitherto believed was wrong. (One of the many things I had never thought about before reading Unfamiliar Fishes was the sheer uselessness of New England as a home base for missionaries. It took them a good six months to get to anywhere uncivilized enough to need them.)

Unfamiliar Fishes tells the story of the battle for hearts and minds between the Massachusetts killjoys and the locals. In these wars, the liberal conscience always has us rooting for the locals, even though we invariably already know that we are doomed to disappointment, and that the locals, whoever and wherever they might be, are even as we speak tucking into Happy Meals, listening to Adele, and working for Halliburton. In Hawaii, though, there was a lot invested in the idea that a child born from the union between brother and sister was superior to a child conceived any other way, and this particular belief kind of muddied the water a little for me. I know, I know. Different times, different cultures. But I have a sister, and you too may well have a sibling who operates an entirely different genital system. And if you do, then you might find yourself unable to boo the meddling Christians with the volume you can usually achieve in situations like this.

And yet as Vowell points out, the whole foundation of royalty is based on the notion that one bloodline is superior to another, and therefore shouldn’t be messed with. “The way said contamination is prevented is through inbreeding, which, of course, is often the genetic cause of a royal dynasty’s demise through sterility, miscarriages, stillbirths, and sickliness. That would be true of the heirs of Keopuolani just as it was true of the House of Hapsburg.”

In other words, one of the reasons that my own country is in such a mess is that there simply hasn’t been enough in-breeding: if there had, we might be shot of our Royal Family by now. Incest is more complicated than it looks (and please feel free to go and get that printed on a T-shirt, if it’s a slogan that grabs you). Like anything else, it’s got its good points and its bad.

The one team we can all get behind in Unfamiliar Fishes is the crew of the English whaler John Palmer. They were so annoyed by the missionaries messing with their inalienable right to onboard visits from prostitutes that they started shelling the port. I am, however, grudgingly respectful of the Americans who, convinced of the Hawaiians’ need for a Bible, first helped to invent a written Hawaiian language, and then translated the whole thing from the original Greek and Hebrew. It took them seventeen years. Finally I have a notion of what I might do when I retire. Anyway, I have sailed through yet another task set by the dark nerd-maiden from across the water; I don’t think she is capable of writing anything that I wouldn’t read, although I hope she doesn’t take that as a provocation. And her history of whaling on the island was so enthralling that it got me through the entire first chapter of Moby-Dick.

The idea of this column, for those of you who have arrived eight years late, is that I write about what I have read in the previous month; for some reason, the books I read with my children have never been included. This last couple of months, however, we have been reading Andy Stanton’s Mr. Gum series at bedtime, and as Stanton’s books are providing as much joy to me as they do to the boys, their omission from these pages would be indefensible.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Nick Hornby lives in North London.

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