The rock-obsessed novelist confesses his idiosyncratic reading habits in this fourth collection of columns written for the Believer.
Critics tend to write reviews as if in a bubble, rarely acknowledging the ways the world can intrude on their reading and comprehension. The charm of Hornby’s (Juliet, Naked, 2009, etc.) “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column is his candor about the messy intersection of living and reading. One column opens with his two young children demanding his attention as he struggles to finish Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist; in another, he points out how a trusted recommendation led him to Don Carpenter’s obscure 1966 noir, Hard Rain Falling. That intimate perspective makes this book read more like a set of personal essays than book reviews, but he still delivers some funny and clear-eyed insights on writing. He demolishes the sexism of John Updike’s Marry Me by calling out the preposterousness of its dialogue, and writing about Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn gives him the opportunity to thoughtfully consider the pleasures of rereading and the distinctions between screenwriting and writing novels. Hornby’s tastes often match those of the Believer audience’s, which prefers contemporary fiction and hipper nonfiction, but he roves widely, devouring Muriel Spark and Charles Dickens along with David Kynaston’s dense history Austerity Britain and a biography of Preston Sturges. Hornby’s reading life is pleasantly experimental, and though he softens his disappointments for the no-snark-allowed Believer, he’s at his most entertaining when he falls in love by accident with a book, as with Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne biography, How to Live.
Hornby is an entertainingly unpretentious critic; any reader would come away with a handful of book recommendations they’d be eager to check out.