Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby


  • The British Museum Is Falling Down—David Lodge
  • Angel—Elizabeth Taylor
  • My American—Stella Gibbons


  • Eminent Hipsters—Donald Fagen
  • The British Museum Is Falling Down—David Lodge
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—John le Carré
  • Thunderstruck and Other Stories—Elizabeth McCracken

I have been thinking a lot about the past these last few weeks, for reasons both professional and personal—but then who hasn’t? Don’t we all think about the past, all the time, when we’re not thinking about the future (a.k.a. what we’re going to eat for lunch)? Maybe it’s because I’m old, and there’s more past than future now, or maybe it’s because I spend too much time on my own, but each day I wake up to a head full of childhood holidays, ten-year-old football results, school friends, ex-girlfriends, half-remembered and maybe half-read books, good times, bad times, former homes, jobs, teachers. I’m like that kid in The Sixth Sense, except that rather than dead people I see department stores that don’t exist anymore. Everything is the past, it turns out. Life, after all, consists of things that have already happened.

Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen’s lovely book of essays, is mostly about the past, and when it isn’t about the past it’s about growing old: “With the Dukes of September,” the last piece in the collection, is a tour diary that describes, with a winning mordancy, what it feels like to go out on the road with other old geezers (Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald) and play night after night to similarly aging and occasionally indifferent audiences who want to hear only ’70s hits. The rest of the book is mostly about the musicians, broadcasters, and writers whose work nourished the Fagen soul just as its owner was preparing for his accomplished and enthralling career in jazz-rock. (You already knew that Donald Fagen was one half of Steely Dan, didn’t you? Good. Phew. Otherwise I wouldn’t know how to continue.) Essays about influence needn’t necessarily produce a book about the past, of course, unless one is talking in the most banal sense. Fagen could have been formed by—or could have chosen to write about—Miles Davis, Rembrandt, Aristotle, or Mark Twain. And those guys are still around, in the air that we breathe, creating new artists as we speak, so the past doesn’t come into it. But Fagen’s eponymous hipsters are a bunch of people who, I suspect, won’t speak to the young ever again. The Boswell Sisters—favorites of Fagen’s mother—Henry Mancini, Jean Shepherd, the Science Fiction Book Club, the all-night jazz DJ Mort Fega… You can hear Fagen’s great solo album, The Nightfly, start to come together in the gaps between those names, but you can hear something else, too: the cool, complicated changes of a very particular moment in postwar American history, when fear of impending nuclear obliteration combined with affluence and good radio to produce a generation that would end up making a whole ton of music and books and movies and ideas. I’m not sure any generation since could be carbon-dated quite as precisely, and while reading Eminent Hipsters I came to envy Fagen’s obvious sense of cultural security. He knew what was what back then, and that has given him the tools to know what’s what now. He might not be right, of course, but he’s equipped to adopt a position. I’m not sure I know what my time is, or was, or what it meant, and I don’t think I’d be able to take on the modern world with the weapons I picked up between the ages of twelve and twenty in the way that Fagen can. What was I given to fight with? There was punk, I suppose, but it didn’t add up to all that much in the end. And there was feminism, too, which taught me lots, but which has also resulted mostly in me being horrified by everything that young women currently seem to enjoy doing. Lucky Fagen, with his Harlan Ellison short stories and his Stan Getz records and his 1960s college education.

If you know and love Steely Dan, then you won’t be surprised to learn that his writing is super-smart, funny, grumpy, erudite, and allusive, and that the book is a joy. “‘I Got a Woman’ appeared on Elvis Presley’s first album,” Fagen says in a tiny but packed essay about Ray Charles. “Elvis wasn’t the white Ray Charles, though. Tennessee Williams, maybe, comes closer.” Are we still producing musicians who can think and talk like that? Will the lead singers of indie bands be producing books like Eminent Hipsters (and Chronicles, and Just Kids) in twenty years’ time? It would appear that Donald Fagen, for one, doesn’t think so. “Actually, it always seemed to me that the Class of ’68 was the last bunch of kids not seriously despoiled in their youth by television (with its insidious brainworm commercials) and drugs.” He reserves his real contempt, though, for the Palm People, the texters and the tweeters and the compulsive picture-takers who have succeeded the TV Babies. “You know what? I refuse to look at you. You’re a corpse. And you prove that every day, with everything you do and everything you say. Wake up, ya dope!”

The two novels I read this month, le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and David Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down, belong to the past, too. That’s not to say that they’re not worth reading—they are. But they were produced in, and describe, countries that no longer exist—literally so, in the case of the le Carré novel. Adam Appleby, the comic antihero of Lodge’s novel, is a twenty-five-year-old research student whose life is being crushed by his Catholicism: the only birth control he and his wife use is the rhythm method, and as a consequence they have been blessed with three children in the four years of their marriage, with another possibly on the way. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, as you probably know, is a thriller set in the brutal, frightening, soul-dead world of espionage in a Europe still divided by the Iron Curtain. I bought a nice, signed hardback that uses a version of the original jacket, and there’s a quote on the front saying, “This is, in our view, a novel of the first order—a terrible novel, of great actuality and high political import.” So that’s a nice period detail right there. If my publishers wanted to tell everyone that I’d written a terrible novel, I’d try and stop them.

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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.

March/April 2014
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