July/August 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby


  • Mrs. Caliban—Rachel Ingalls
  • Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay—John Lanchester
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain
  • The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers—Christopher Vogler


  • Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives—David Eagleman
  • Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball—Stefan Kanfer
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea—Barbara Demick
  • Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay—John Lanchester
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain

No time spent with a book is ever entirely wasted, even if the experience is not a happy one: there’s always something to be learned. It’s just that, every now and again, you can hit a patch of reading that makes you feel as if you’re pootling about. There’s nothing like a couple of sleepy novels, followed by a moderately engaging biography of a minor cultural figure, to make you aware of your own mortality. But what can you do about it? We don’t choose to waste our reading time; it just happens. The books let us down.

It wasn’t just that I enjoyed all the books I read this month; they felt vital, too. If you must read a biography of a sitcom star, then make sure the sitcom is the most successful and influential in TV history. You have a yen to read about a grotesquely dysfunctional communist society? Well, don’t mess about with Cuba—go straight for North Korea. John Lanchester’s Whoops! is a relatively simple explanation of the biggest financial crisis in history; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is, according to Hemingway, the book from which all American literature derives. A month of superlatives, in other words—the best, the worst, the biggest, and the most important.

And, as a digestif, David Eagleman’s Sum, which invites us to contemplate forty varieties of afterlife. It’s such a complete package that it seems crazy to carry on reading, so I may well stop altogether. I’m not giving this column up, though. It pays too well.

Stefan Kanfer’s Ball of Fire contains an anecdote which seems to me to justify not only the time I spent reading it, but the entire genre, every biography ever written. Kanfer is describing the early days of Ball’s relationship with Desi Arnaz, which was stormy right from the off:

Almost every Sunday night ended with a furious argument about each other’s intentions and infidelities…. It happened that two of the town’s greatest magpies witnessed many of the quarrels. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his inamorata, columnist Sheilah Graham, used to watch the spats from Fitzgerald’s balcony.

F. Scott Fitzgerald used to watch Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz fighting? Why didn’t I know this before? If this story is true—and there’s no reason to doubt it—then all is chaos. No biography can be left unread, just in case there is a gem like this lying there, undiscovered, within its pages. Maybe Thomas Pynchon repeatedly bangs on Sarah Michelle Gellar’s wall because she plays her music too loud! Maybe Simon Cowell and Maya Angelou are in the same book group!

The reason Kanfer’s book works so well, and why it throws up so many good stories, is that Ball, like the fictional Mose Sharp and Rocky Carter in Elizabeth McCracken’s brilliant Niagara Falls All Over Again, took the long road through the American pop-culture century. She worked in theater, film, radio, and TV. She dated Henry Fonda, worked with the Marx Brothers, knew Damon Runyon. A washed-up Buster Keaton helped her with her physical comedy. She found out that she was pregnant by listening to Walter Winchell on the radio—he’d obtained the information from the lab technicians even before they passed the information on to Ball’s doctor. She attracted the attention of HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, because she’d registered with the Communist party in 1936 primarily to humor her socialist grandfather. Hers was an extraordinary journey, and just in case you need a little more, there was a long, tempestuous marriage at the center of it. (Ball rendered the first divorce from Arnaz null and void by jumping into bed with her ex-husband on the way back from the courthouse.) We didn’t have a Lucille Ball in the U.K.; you have way more female comediennes than us. This is not a coincidence.

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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