Jan 12, 2009

Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby

Shakespeare Wrote for Money is the last (sniff) collection of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer. It goes from August 2006 to September 2008, but unfortunately he takes a six month vacation somewhere in the middle, and the book ends up being much shorter than I was hoping for.

It’s still great, though, and I mean great. I think this is probably my favourite of his essay collections. Let me begin with the usual reasons why: Nick Hornby’s wonderful sarcasm, his sense of humour, his intelligence and insight, his unpretentiousness. They’re all back, better than ever.

I think that back when I posted about The Complete Polysyllabic Spree I said that his reading philosophy is pretty much the same as mine, and that remains true. Which actually makes it harder to write about this book, because I’m tempted to just post 40 passages with a few comments like “Yes!”, “Exactly!”, “Go Nick!” or “Bwahahaha” scattered here and there. Take this, for example:
“What we need”, one of those scary critics who writes for the serious magazines said recently, “is more straight talk about bad books.” Well, of course we do. It’s hard to think of anything we need more, in fact. Because then, surely, people would stop reading bad books, and writers would stop writing them, and the only books that anyone read or wrote would be the ones that the scary critics in the serious magazines liked, and the world would be a happier place, unless you happen to enjoy reading the books that the scary critics don’t like—in which case the world would be an unhappier place for you. Tough.
I love him. And let me just clarify that I don’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about books we don’t like (and despite The Believer’s official policy, I doubt he does either). We should, and we should explain why we don’t like them and invite others to agree or disagree and keep the conversation going. What bothers me is the authoritative attitude behind “straight talk”, an attitude that leaves no room for diversity or discussion. It’s the conviction that these Serious Magazines’ definition of Bad Books (basically, anything not “literary” enough) is the final one.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed this book even more than the previous ones was the fact that he reads and discusses lots of books I love. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao! Fun Home! The Accidental! American Born Chinese! The Road! I loved reading what he had to say about them.

If you think this sounds good, well, it’s about to get better. Because about two thirds of the way into the book, Nick Hornby discovers YA. And so in the next few columns he writes about authors like Sherman Alexie, Francesca Lia Block, David Almond, Phillipa Pearce or M.T. Anderson. The only reason why this didn’t prove disastrous for my wishlist is the fact that most of the books he mentions are already there. The best part, though, was seeing him say wonderful things such as:
These young-adult novels I have been Hoovering up are not light in the sense that they are disposable or unmemorable. On the contrary, they have all, without exception, been smart, complicated, deeply felt, deeply meant. They are light, however, in the sense that they are not built to resist your interest in them: they want to be read quickly and effortlessly.
They’ve been very disorienting, these last few weeks. I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of, the YA equivalents of The Maltese Falcon or Strangers on a Train. Weirdly, then, reading YA stuff now is a little like being a young adult back then: is this Vonnegut guy any good? What about Albert Camus? Anyone ever heard of him? The world suddenly seems a larger place.
However, I have to say that he disappointed me a tiny little bit by saying that even though he read and loved numbers two and three of the list of best Carnegie Medal winners (Tom’s Midnight Garden and Skelling), he’s not ready for number one yet because he can’t imagine enjoying books with hobbits and sprites. Number one, by the way, is the entirely hobbitless and spriteless first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

The way he says it is so free of arrogance and so unpretentious that my disappointment didn’t last long. But I did entertain the notion of locking him in a basement somewhere with a copy of the trilogy and only letting him out when he was done reading it. Also, I wonder if this hobbitphobia is what’s keeping him from Terry Pratchett. Maybe I should also leave a copy of Nation in the aforementioned basement and only let him out when he’s done with that too. Because considering the other books he likes, I’d be very surprised if he didn’t enjoy those.

Another thing: in The Polysyllabic Spree he complained about how nobody has any scruples about spoiling the plots of classic, and I mentally clapped along. Well, Nick Hornby, I have not yet read Jude the Obscure. And no, I’m not sure if I will, but that’s not the point. But I forgive him, because I know that, unlike some, he didn’t do it because he believes that anyone who hasn’t read a classic yet deserves to have it spoiled for them or any such other ludicrous notion.

I’m going to miss his columns so much. But in the last one he does say it’s over “at least for a while”. So who knows! Maybe there’s hope.

Books added to my wishlist:

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty by Tim Sandlin
1559: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro
Skelling by David Almond
Clay by David Almond
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (was on my mental list already)
Holes by Louis Sachar (same)
Ironweed by William Kennedy
The World Made Straight by Ron Rash
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

A few more notable passages:

The French book about reading that’s been getting a lot of attention recently is Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which should surely be retitled You Need Some New Friends, Because the Ones you’ve Got Are Jerks: literary editors seem to think it’s zeitgeisty, but out in the world grown-ups no longer feel the need to bullshit about literature, thank god.

…but reading begets reading—that’s sort of the point of it, surely?—and anybody who never deviates from a set list of books is intellectually dead anyway. Look at the trouble Orwell’s essays got me into. First of all there’s his long and interesting consideration of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a novel that I must confess I had written off as dated smut; George has persuaded me otherwise, so I bought it.

Yes, it’s the job of artists to force us to stare at the horror until we’re on the verge of passing out. But it’s also the job of artists to offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from lives that can occasionally seem unendurable drab. I wouldn’t want to pick one job over the other—they both seem pretty important to me. And it’s quite legitimate, I think, not to want to read The Road. There are some images now embedded in my memory that I don’t especially want there. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have a duty to read it.

Just recently, I read an interview with a contemporary literary novelist who worried that books by other writers who use pop-culture references in their fiction would not be read in twenty-five year’s time. And, yes, there’s the possibility that in a quarter of a century, The Abstinence Teacher will mystify people who come across it: it’s about America now, this minute, and it’s chock-full of band names and movies and TV programs. (…) Yet some fiction at least should deal with the state of the here and now, no matter the cost to the work’s durability, no? (…) My advice to you: don’t read writers with an eye on posterity. They are deeply serious people, and by picking up their books now, you are trivializing them. Plus, they’re not interested in the money. They’re above all that.
Other Opinions:
An Adventure in Reading
where troubles melt like lemon drops
Stainless Steel Droppings
Biblio Addict
In Spring it is the Dawn

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. Ooh, I need to read this. I didn't even realize Nick Hornby had essay collections about books! I have his YA book sitting on my shelf, I need to read it soon and see if it's appropriate for my son. Can't wait to get to it!

  2. I've never read Hornby, but that title rocks! And ...

    I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or dangerous criminal.

    ... is pure gold.

  3. OMG, this is a great post!
    ==>which should surely be retitled You Need Some New Friends, Because the Ones you’ve Got Are Jerks.
    How do I get banished to your scary basement of must-read books? I need some more time away from distractions and this place sounds lovely. I even promise to read some vampire books, really!

  4. I didn't realize he had another essay book out. I've read the first two, and loved them. He talks like my brain thinks. I liked the second one even more because I had already read more books that he wrote about - like Persepolis, and Assassination Vacation.
    And this one has lots of YA? awesome. More Nick Hornby!
    ps Weetzie Bat was a sweet little fairy tale, and I think you'll love it.

  5. "Number one, by the way, is the entirely hobbitless and spriteless first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy."...You seriously must love this guy! :)

    Want to know how I wasted a nice little chunk of my time today? Trying to find out the Dewey Decimal number for The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. Seriously. I figure it has to be in the 000s, wouldn't you say? Was so excited to start it for the Dewey Decimal Challenge. But I just can't find its darn number. Of course, it really is a "read at your own risk" sort of book, isn't it? As in it will wreak havoc with the old wish list.

    I really hope you like Holes when you get around to it. Annie and I read it a few years ago for homeschool. I enjoyed it so much more than I expected to!

  6. debi - I found on librarything that the Polysyllabic Spree is 810.9 on the dewey decimal system. It's a great place to look that stuff up for that challenge.
    Holes was the first 'big' book my son read on his own, after he got over the fact that there were 40 some chapters.

  7. Skelling by David Almond is an fantastic read.

  8. Ali: I think I like his essays even better than his fiction :D Seriously, they're that good. And I haven't read Slam yet, but I really want to.

    Loren Eaton: Isn't it? :D The book is full of gems.

    Care: That bit made me laugh out loud. And there is of course room for you in my Basement of Doom :P

    Raidergirl3: It's brand new, published last month. I loved his take on Persepolis too. And I bet I'll indeed love Weetzie Bat! I've read two books by Block so far and I really enjoyed them both.

    Debi: See, you see right through me. My basement entrapment plans are made out of love. There's room for you in there too if you don't read Nation soon, btw :P And hey, that strikes me as a perfectly valid way of spending time :P But thanks to raidergirl3, now you know! I look forward to reading Holes.

    Bart: Good to hear it also has the Bart Stamp of Approval :P I read a story by Almond in an anthology once and I loved it to pieces. I really don't know why I haven't read any of his books yet.

  9. I love, love, love (!) YA books and heck, I love children's books too. So sue me. LOL.

    Lovely review as always, Nymeth. I still haven't read Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down and it's been there for ages...

  10. sounds very good! I havent read this author, I need to.
    I like the passages you picked.
    great review as always.
    I like his take on YA books.

  11. If you added that many books to your wish list, I probably shouldn't read this... My wish list is large enough!

  12. I haven't read any Hornby, but any book that is about books, and is good, is a highly tempting tome in my opinion.

  13. This quote:

    These young-adult novels I have been Hoovering up are not light in the sense that they are disposable or unmemorable. On the contrary, they have all, without exception, been smart, complicated, deeply felt, deeply meant. They are light, however, in the sense that they are not built to resist your interest in them: they want to be read quickly and effortlessly.

    makes me want to rush out and get some of his essays right now. It's so, so true. I've gotten a big kick out of his fiction, but I've yet to tackle any of his nonfiction.

  14. Wonderful review! That's so fun that he's finally discovered YA fiction. I'm so looking forward to reading this. It'll be in my next Book Depository order for sure!

  15. I LOVE that comment about the YA fiction and thriller movies. Yes! Maybe we should just send him a copy of Nation and tell him to sit in a metaphorical basement OR ELSE. And Dark Materials, too, I suppose, although I didn't like that nearly as much. Another great review, and Hornby is on my must-read list for 2009. Thanks!

  16. I didn't realize he had a new one out! I will have to look for this one. I haven't yet read his other essay collections, but I've been thinking of making a project out of them. Hmmm. Thanks for the great review!

  17. This looks interesting.

    Hey, do you want to do a link exchange? http://lainahastoomuchsparetime.blogspot.com/

  18. I'm already on the list for this one at my library, but you make me want to read it even more. :p Like you, I pretty much agree with everything Hornby has to say, lol.

  19. Gah I can't wait to read his books! They sound so good. I do hope that he goes back to his article even though I've never read any of them :p I'm sure I'll love them though. Question: I got a book by Hornby in the mail today called Songbook (I mooched it) and I think it's the same book as 31 Songs. Do you know if it's the same with a different title? I don't know why they would do that, but from what I gathered they are one in the same....

  20. Wonderful review Nymeth, it makes me want to read the book so much.

  21. I really need t get to the Complete Polysillabic Spree. I saw it at the library last week; I just need to go back and grab it from the shelf :)

  22. You keep making me add books to my list! :D
    I must read this, but first of all I must finish Polysyllabic Spree - I bought the mass market in 2007, stopped, then bought the tradeback and gave my mass market away (I do that with books I love), but haven't picked it back up.

  23. This sounds amazing! My library doesn't have this one yet, but I did place holds on Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping.

    Would you say these are better read in a certain order or can you jump right in anywhere?

  24. I think I've said this before. I read Polysyllabic spree because you recommended it...somehow I missed book two, but now I have to go see about that and this book three in his essay series. oboy....

  25. I just got my copy of Polysyllabic Spree, and I can't wait to begin! Now adding Shakespeare Wrote for Money...

  26. This sounds like a completely amazing book! I love Nick Hornby's novels, but have yet to venture in to his essays and columns. I've been keeping my eye on The Polysyllabic Spree and now I think I'm just going to have to pick that one AND this one up. I just can't resist it any longer! :D

  27. Ooh, this one sounds good. I wouldn't normally pick up a book of essays, but Nick Hornby writing about books he's read? Yes, please. Especially after this review.

  28. I think I've read one of his essays before but I'm not sure. This sounds like a great collection though!

  29. Alice: I love them too, and I think that people who dismiss them are missing out :P I haven't read that one yet either, but eventually I will. I want to read everything he's ever written.

    Naida: Needless to say, I like it too :P He's so funny and so wise.

    Kailana: It's dangerous that way, yep :P

    Carl: His essays on reading will appeal to any bookworm out there. But even more to book hoarders such as ourselves. He always starts the column with two lists: one of books read that month and one of books bought. Need I say more? :P

    Memory: Isn't it? I'd say "get them, you know you want to", but I know you're trying to fight temptation :P I think his nonfiction is even better than his fiction.

    tanabata: You'll love it for sure!

    Darla: I actually can't pick between those two books...it'd be like picking a favourite child :P Or, in my case, cat. lol, I love your "OR ELSE" strategy.

    Literary Feline: I'm curious about the project you have in mind!

    Laina: Hi! I don't normally do link exchanges of the "I'll link to you if you link to me" kind (not that there's anything wrong with them), but I do add any new interesting blogs I discover to my blogroll. Except I suck at updating it and am normally months behind. Having said that, if you, or anyone else, would like to be in there I'll be glad to add you.

    Eva: I have such a big brain crush on him, lol.

    Chris: That is indeed the American title of 31 Songs. I had no idea why they change those things either. I look forward to getting my point :P

  30. Violet, I hope you enjoy it :)

    Alessandra: Yes, get it from the library! I think you'll enjoy it.

    Marineko: And that is a good thing, right? :P You should finish it and post about it! I'd love to read your take on it.

    Joanne: Nope, no need to worry about the order! The order is just chronological, and each month he writes about the books he read that month.

    Serena: They're so worth it! You'll see.

    Jenclair: I really look forward to your review.

    Chelsea: You'll be glad you got them, you'll see :D The man's brilliant.

    Michelle: Yes please indeed :P His essays are so funny, so accessible. I really couldn't put the books down.

    Ladytink: Maybe you did online? I think some were up at The Believer's website.

  31. After just finishing "The Subtle Knife" I'm all for locking Hornby in that basement. I just know he'll love it so much if he'd just give it a chance! Gah!

    I've had this one sitting on my TBR shelf since it came out. It's one of those sure-fire good reads that I like to save for a slow reading cycle. We'll see how much longer my resistance can last. I didn't care for the only Hornby novel I've ever read ("How to Be Good"), but God, he's an amazing essayist.

    P.S. You must read "Sharp Teeth." I read it solely on Hornby's recommendation and I was not disappointed. Very unique, very inventive, very, very good.

  32. I have heard a lot about Hornby, but never read one of his books. After reading your review, I am going to get get one A.S.A.P. Where should I start?

  33. This definitely sounds like a book for a booklover! I have The Complete Polysyllabic Spree but it's been languishing on my shelves for too long. I have as a challenge read this year so hopefully I will get to it. I'm sure I will enjoy it!

  34. J.S. Peyton: yay, a partner in crime :P He would love it, wouldn't it? I really think so too. How to be Good is still on my tbr shelf, but I've heard from Hornby fans that it's not his best novel. So don't let that stop you from picking another! And I will indeed read Sharp Teeth.

    Robin: Yes you must!

    Zibilee: My first was High Fidelity and I loved it. For non-fiction, can't go wrong with The Polysyllabic Spree!

    Iliana: I hope you do get to it! You'll enjoy it for sure.

  35. "dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or dangerous criminal"
    Must use this line when someone asks me why I read YA!
    I thought I should start reading Hornby's non fiction with the Polysyllabic Spree but I think I might start with this one!sounds really good.
    I'm happy you officially added Holes and Weetzie Bat to your wishlist:)
    and I totally approve of your idea about locking him in a basement with Pullman and Pratchett!!

  36. Obviously when I went into the bookstores in England, they were sold out of this one and so I could only get Polysyllabic Spree! Or I would have bought this one too! Gah! One point to you, today!! :-) I didn't even know this was out....and he likes YA fiction now too! I like how you did your review, too. Maybe I should start awarding points for good posts, too! lol you might as well as pick a book you can only get in Canada :-)

  37. Oh, I want this I want this I want this! I'm still trying to get ahold of Housekeeping Vs the Dirt to put alongside the Polysyllabic Spree on my own shelf.... I skipped half your post because I wanted to be thrilled/surprise when I finally read it on my own. Thanks for alerting me to a new Hornby literate collection!

  38. I have yet to read anything by Nick Hornby *hanging head in shame* but I do have one of his books in my TBR pile. But I must also say that as a huge fan of Shakespeare I love the title increasing the frenzy for which I want to read one of his books, particularly Shakespeare Wrote for Money.


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