Thursday, January 5, 2017

Brooks on Books: Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby

Well, long ago and far away on this blog, I discussed 3 books with connections to one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby, including a  collection of columns he wrote for Beleiver magazine about books and reading. I mentioned he had discontinued the feature, but, hey, hey, hey, it came back! Even better, a massive collection compiled all the previous collections plus another collection that came out after that collection, and, well, here it is.

Ten Years in the Tub is a fantastic bit of entertainment, an addictive volume that is easy to plow through because of the gimmick and because of Hornsby's considerable writing ability.  I won't say much more about the latter; the man is witty, honest, and insightful on every page. As for the gimmick: Each issue (more or less, and I don't think the mag is even doing a print edition anymore), Hornby writes "Stuff I've Been Reading," a brief column about his book habits. The brilliance of this simple concept is that Hornby lists not just what he has read in the last month, but what he bought.

The contradictions/crossovers in the two lists are an essential part of Hornby's ongoing dialogue about books and should resonate with any book lover. In fact, I guarantee this collection will make its readers go buy (or at least want to go buy) a bunch of things they surely intend to devour someday but will never in fact read. That's part of the book lover's conundrum, and Hornby is great at describing the motivations that make one want to buy reading material and the ones that make them actually start reading.

By the end of the collection, Hornby is starting to enter the digital realm and contemplating the future of publishing and of books. What I love about these columns is that even though he is an accomplished author and does reference that inescapable fact quite often, the voice is always that of the reader. Many themes crop up throughout the pieces: His disdain for self-conscious literary overwriting and pretension, his acknowledgements of his own biases/gaps and how he sometimes attempts to overcome them (his joyful discovery of YA fiction is a delight), and his apologies for not always reading a whole lot. Sometimes he's embarrassed to report he hasn't actually read that much because he's been preoccupied by World Cup or Arsenal soccer.

Along the way, Hornby discusses classic fiction (Dickens pops up a lot) both familiar and obscure, modern literary fiction, history, YA books, graphic novels, nonfiction, and all kinds of topics related to his book list. He also covers many works about reading, about writing, about authors, and about culture and art. Everything is talked about in an accessible, friendly manner, and it frequently is hilarious.

Hornby's constant jokes about "The Polysyllabic Spree," the collective who serve as his bosses and who forbid him to write negatively about contemporary authors (one of the credos of Believer is to provide snark-free coverage of writers) never get old because of his willingness to puncture his own pretensions. If he picks up a novel but can't finish it, he alludes to it but doesn't trash it and doesn't name it. It's not a conventional review column, but an idiosyncratic reading chronicle, so it never feels compromised.

I love Hornby's fiction, and he has carved out a successful career as a screenwriter too, but as Fever Pitch proved, he's a skilled non-fiction writer as well. Ten Years in the Tub is a great body of work that is tough to put down and will stimulate plenty of thought about your own reading lifestyle as well as the desire to seek out a lot of the books he mentions.

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