Nov 6, 2012

More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby

More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby

What can I possibly say about Nick Hornby’s essays on his reading that I haven’t said before? More Baths Less Talking collects his monthly “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for the Believer dating from May 2010 to December 2011. If you’re unfamiliar with these, Hornby originally wrote them from 2003 to 2008, but decided to take a break after that. This new collection marks his return, and was therefore highly anticipated by unapologetic fangirls such as myself.

Hornby’s reading taste is very diverse, and as a result More Baths Less Talking covers anything from long history tomes to classics, contemporary novels, books about pop music, and young adult fiction. But more than the books he’s writing about, I’m interested in how Hornby writes about them. He is, first of all, an incredibly generous reader, always willing to engage openly and honestly with whatever he picks up. Secondly, he never fails to be interesting. His columns appeal to me even when they’re about books I’m not likely to pick up myself because they’re never just about that one specific book. Like all the best writing, they use a particular reading experience as a point of departure to discuss, well, Life, the Universe and Everything. Hornby does this unassumingly, and his thoughtfulness and insight go hand in hand with a wonderful sense of humour. In short, I’m kind of in awe of his writing: he does everything I’ve always aimed for as a blogger, only a hundred times better.

And of course, I also appreciate the fact that he makes me desperately want to read books I probably wouldn’t have even considered picking up before. Take, for example, Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson, a book in the 33 1/3 series. The reasons why I’d never pick it up are exactly the reasons why I should, but I needed Hornby to tell me that:
It is not stretching a point to say that the rapidly shifting sands of critical and popular approbation are the subject of Carl Wilson’s brilliant extended essay about Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, another in the excellent 33 1⁄3 series. Most of the others I’ve read are well-written but conventional songs of praise to an important album in rock’s history—Harvest, Dusty in Memphis, Paul’s Boutique, and so on. This one is different. Wilson asks the question: Why does everyone hate Céline Dion? Except, of course, it’s not everyone, is it? She’s sold more albums than just about anyone alive. Everyone loves Céline Dion, if you think about it. So actually, he asks the question: why do I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion? And the answers he finds are profound, provocative, and leave you wondering who the hell you actually are—especially if, like many of us around these parts, you set great store by cultural consumption as an indicator of both character and, let’s face it, intelligence. We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us! In a few short, devastating chapters, Wilson chops himself and all of us off at the knees. “It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness,” Wilson observes.
By this point I was already completely sold, but Hornby goes on to say:
Let’s Talk About Love belongs on your bookshelf next to John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?; they both cover similar ideas about the construct of taste, although Wilson finds more room for Elliott Smith and the Ramones than Professor Carey could. And in a way, taking on Dion is a purer and more revealing exercise than taking on some of the shibboleths of literary culture, as Carey did. After all, there is a rough-and-ready agreement on literary competence, on who can string a sentence together and who can’t, that complicates any wholesale rejection of critical values in literature. In popular music, though, a whole different set of judgments is at play. We forgive people who can’t sing or construct a song or play their instruments, as long as they are cool, or subversive, or deviant; we do not dismiss Dion because she’s incompetent. Indeed, her competence may well be a problem, because it means she excludes nobody, apart from us, and those who invest heavily in cultural capital don’t like art that can’t exclude: it’s confusing, and it doesn’t help us to meet attractive people of the opposite sex who think the same way we do. Wilson’s book isn’t just important; it has good facts in it, too.
(The February 2011 column is probably my favourite in this collection, by the way, and you can read it in its entity online.)

I picked up What Good Are the Arts? partially due to Hornby’s recommendation, and found it incredibly useful in unpacking the self-congratulatory, exclusionary way we sometimes talk about art. Carey manages to challenge this without ever sliding into anti-intellectualism (quite the contrary), and a book that does something similar with pop music is a book I desperately need in my life.

If you happen to have clicked over to my “About” page at one point or another, you might have noticed that I quote from Hornby’s first collection, The Polysyllabic Spree, and call it a book that sums up my reading philosophy. Reading More Baths Less Talking reminded me of all the reasons why this is the case. Hornby remains as determined as always not to condescend to other readers, but this doesn’t mean he strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator. He’s unapologetically smart and intellectually curious, and explains with absolutely no trace of smugness why reading a long biography of Dickens might be fun for you, too.

I find books about books fascinating in general, but Hornby’s certainly remain my unrivalled favourites. Fingers crossed that we get a new collection before too long.

A few more of my favourite bits:
The quickest way to kill all love for the classics, I see it now, is to tell young people that nothing else matters, because then all they can do is look around them in a museum of literature, through glass case. Don’t touch! And don’t think for a moment that they want to live in the same world as you! And so a lot of adult life – if your hunger and curiosity haven’t been squelched by your education – is learning to join up the dots that you didn’t even know were there.

[On John Updike’s Marry Me] It wasn’t just the rows I found hard to comprehend; some of the sex was beyond me too. “Though Sally had been married ten years, and furthermore had had lovers before Jerry, her lovemaking was wonderfully virginal, simple and quick.” Ah, yes. That’s what we gentlemen want: women who are both sexually experienced and alive to the touch, while at the same time not too, you know, trampy. “Wonderfully virginal”? My therapist would have more fun in fifty minutes than he’s ever had in his whole professional life were I to use that particular combination of adverb and adjective in a session.
Books added to my TBR and/or wishlist:
  • Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith (I already own this, and I’m ridiculously pleased with myself for having had the good sense to bring it with me when I moved.) (Now watch me take 3 years to actually read it.) (At least I know Hornby of all people would understand.)
  • Everything by Muriel Spark
  • Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
  • How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
  • Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson
  • Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
  • My Name is Mina by David Almond
  • Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
They read it too: Of Books and Bicycles, BookNAround

(You?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

22 comments:

eveningreader said...

Wonderful review. Whenever I finish reading something he's written about reading (I'm so sad he doesn't keep his blog anymore), I want to read ALL THE BOOKS. Now that you have also endorsed What Good Are the Arts?, I will definitely make an effort to read that one. And I so agree--to be able to write about books the way he does: well, I consider it a goal worth striving for, even if I never get there. The first time I picked up The Polysyllabic Spree, I remember thinking, "This. This is what I want to be able to do!" (And I think, dear Ana, you get as close as any of us to achieving that yourself.)

Andi said...

I've only read one of his collections of columns (The Polysyllabic Spree), but I'm excited to read more! Glad you loved this one!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've not read anything by him! But I think that is the absolute BEST BOOK TITLE EVER. That should be the 11th commandment.

Zibilee said...

I have one of his books, but haven't read it yet. It's The Polysyllabic Spree, and I have heard so many good things about it that I must make time for it. This one sounds rather good too. I love it when an author can talk books like a pro, but also talk about other things as well.

Stefanie said...

I'm in line at the library for this and I can't wait to read it. Like you I very much appreciate the way he writes about books and do so envy it. And his collections always add books to my TBR. Such fun!

Kathleen said...

I need to read this and at least one of Hornby's novels!

Garry Drake said...

I highly recommend Brooklyn by Toibin. It is excellent! I am thrilled by the potential movie version penned by Hornby. And once you're finished with Carl Wilson's 33 1/3 project, check out Jonathan Lethem's book on Talking Heads's Fear of Music.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a book any reader would love!

Emily said...

I love books about books! Thanks for the recommendation, Ana. I'm adding it to my list.

Vasilly said...

Nymeth, you are so right. Hornby rights about a book in a way that's honest and entertaining. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Jenny said...

Hahahaha, oh my, thanks for quoting that passage about Updike. I dislike him on principle (because the one of his books I fuzzily remember starting to read years ago was soooo nasty about women), and it's lovely to see his lady issues being called out by other readers. :)

Amy said...

Read Just Kids and I will too!

Jeanne said...

I am so discouraged that reading about these columns makes there seem less point to blogging and reading a book about the importance of the arts seems beside the point when I live in a town that just voted down the levy that might have saved a reduced drama program in the high school where art and music have already been cut.

JoAnn said...

Thanks for posting the link to the Feb 2011 column. I loved Brooklyn- hope you get a chance to read it soon.
Hornby's Housekeeping vs The Dirt was very good, too.

Kristi said...

I'm glad to hear you loved it. I've only read Nick Hornby's fiction, and not any of his books on books. I can't wait to try one.

stujallen said...

oooh great love his non fiction this going straight on my wishlist ,read his other book about books from few years ago so well written and his humour I love ,all the best stu

Clare said...

I have yet to pick up Hornby and I desperately need to. Perhaps for the holidays! Also, A Journey to the End of Taste sounds like the perfect title for my autobiography.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I love his Believer columns. I've read two of the collections, but I can't wait ot get my hands on this one!

claire said...

Brooklyn is so beautiful. Patti Smith's Just Kids, even more so. Do read it soon, it's a very heartfelt book, one that I foresee myself rereading over and over. I'm curious, too, about My Name is Mina. I was looking for a book to give my 10 yo son and saw it in the bookstore and was tempted to buy it for myself but I didn't. Next time.

Debi said...

Cannot wait to get my hands on this one!!!! I honestly think the collections of his columns are among my very favorite books of all time! Ah yes, one of the thirty-four bajillion reasons I love you--for it was you who introduced them to me in the first place. :D

Btw, I TOTALLY agree with eveningreader--you definitely come as close to writing like Hornby does about books as anyone I've ever run across!

Abigail@The Story Factory Reading Zone said...


I love the quote about classic books- so true!

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Priscilla: Aw, you're too kind. That makes me feel like I'm doing something right.

Andi: Read them ALL - they're so good :D

Sandy: Hahaha, yes. There's a story behind you too, which you'll find out when you pick up the book :P

Zibilee: You're going to love it! I'm excited for you that you get to read it for the first time :D

Stefanie: I hope your turn comes soon! It's a very quick read (almost too quick), so hopefully people won't take too long to return it.

Kathleen: Yes! I especially love his non-fiction, but the novels are great too.

Garry Drake: *takes note of recommendations* - many thanks! And yes, I'm excited about the possible movie too. He did a brilliant job with An Education.

Kathy: I think it is, yes :)

Emily: There's no beating Hornby's, I don't think!

Vasilly: He really does.