Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby


  • Cheryl Strayed—Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Glenway Wescott—The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story
  • Janie Hampton—The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948
  • Jane Austen—Persuasion
  • YY—XX
  • Selina Hastings—Rosamond Lehmann
  • Mary Roach—Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex


  • Cheryl Strayed—Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Ben Fountain—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  • Glenway Wescott—The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story
  • Janie Hampton—The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948

Here’s the thing: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five or ten years, up there with David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, and Mark Harris’s Scenes from a Revolution, and Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, and Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang—or rather in there, because whereas the former preposition indicates some kind of indefensibly objective ranking system, the latter more accurately reflects what happens to our favorite books, I think: we separate them from the other books we’ve read—the ones we liked but didn’t love, or admired but didn’t connect with, or hated and didn’t finish—and we place them on a special and infinitely extendable shelf somewhere within our souls. So Wild is now in this personal library, which consists of probably three or four hundred books, a number I intend to add to as often as I can for the rest of my life; it’s “mine,” in a way that Sullivan’s Travels is mine, and the first Ramones album is mine. In other words, it’s not mine at all, but such is my affinity with it that I’ve somehow ended up embarking on long and expensive legal battles in an attempt to get myself a co-credit. (Preston Sturges, by the way, is not an easy man to deal with, if you’re thinking about going down that road yourself with The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story.) Anyway, we’re lucky if we find one of these a year; my admiration for Wild means that this was a very good reading month, whatever else happened.

I put down Strayed’s book and picked up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and suddenly a very good reading month turned into a very difficult one. The problem was this: I loved Fountain’s novel as much as I had loved Wild. So suddenly, all was chaos. Is it possible to read two modern classics back-to-back, without anyone having mentioned that they’re modern classics? Did this mean that my standards were slipping? Did it mean that times are so tough in publishing that only modern classics are being published? Had I gone mad? And, more pertinently, what was I going to read next?

This last question became particularly troubling, not only because I was unlikely to be lucky a third time, and would thus end up feeling itchy and dissatisfied by anything that attempted to occupy the time happily devoted to Wild and Billy Lynn, but because I had this column to write. Younger visitors to this page may not recall the Believer’s legendary and entirely laudable no-snark rule: the Polysyllabic Spree, the seventy-eight stunningly attractive but dismayingly solemn editors of this magazine, are constantly on the lookout for slighting references to writers and/or works of literature, however carefully encrypted. (Seven of the Spree are employed full-time on this task.) And this was why I was so upset by the brilliance of Fountain’s novel—how could I avoid incurring their wrath now? Any praise for the next books I read was likely to be faint by comparison, and to the collective mind of the Spree, showering a book with faint praise is like peeing on it. (And just in case this simile leaves any room for confusion in the minds of our more “artistic” subscribers: they’re against peeing on books. I’m pretty sure they are, anyway. TBC.) My subsequent fear and indecision resulted in a lot of books being purchased and a lot of books being abandoned after a couple of pages. And we also have a first in one of the lists that introduce “Stuff I’ve Been Reading”—an anonymous Book Bought.

Here’s how that works. I think carefully about the next novel I’m going to read. One in particular comes highly recommended, by two different friends whose taste I trust. I buy it, and resolve to read it next, and then I walk into a party and a third friend with impeccable taste asks me whether I’ve read XX by YY, the novel in question. I tell her I haven’t, and am about to launch into an explanation of its sudden importance in my life, and she makes a face. It was a “Meh” face rather than a “Bleeeugh” face, but even so… There was no way I could persist with XX after that. I’d be reading it in the wrong spirit, and in any case I needed a cast-iron, superstrength guarantee of brilliance, and I hadn’t got it. I still haven’t read a word of XX. In desperation, I turned to Persuasion, but it didn’t have the tremendous kinetic energy of the Fountain novel, and its careful moderation wasn’t likely to give me the bare-knuckle punch of Strayed’s memoir.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Nick Hornby is the author of six novels, the most recent of which is Juliet, Naked, and a memoir, Fever Pitch. He is also the author of Songbook, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for music criticism, and editor of the short-story collection Speaking with the Angel. His screenplay for An Education was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in North London.

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