Review: ‘Ten Years in the Tub’ by Nick Hornby

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Hornby's collection feels like so much loyal tribute-paying to his personal coterie of hipster swells

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

February 21, 2014

A writer writing about reading writers for readers invested in reading about writing.

Got that? If so, this thick volume of Nick Hornby essays deserves a place on your nightstand. This collection audaciously assembles every column Hornby has penned in The Believer magazine between September 2003 and June 2013, which means the true appeal is for true believers in Hornby, the British novelist best known for obsessive, list-making protagonists, all of whom would surely obsess over collections such as this one, which, in turn, obsessively documents books Hornby reads each month, as well as the ones he purchases. (Take note, they are not often the same.)

But stop the clock: How is "Ten Years in the Tub" different from "The Polysyllabic Spree" (2004), "Housekeeping vs. the Dirt" (2006), "Shakespeare Wrote for Money" (2008), and "More Baths Less Talking" (2012), four separate Hornby collections culled from The Believer this last decade?

Not much. The subtitle, "A Decade Soaking in Great Books," implies this nearly 500-page brick has more to do with savvy marketing, especially since your casual Hornby fan is already familiar with, or has read, much of the work here. The Believer and McSweeney's, the publisher behind these books, surely understand that a reissue of a reissue rings perfectly true in an era when record and film companies routinely come up with new ways to trot out old product. You know, like when classic albums like "Band on the Run" are revamped and reissued in "classic," "deluxe" and "ultimate" versions every few years. This is like that.

Purposelessness aside, the heft of "Ten Years" is its curse. Too much Hornby reveals his writerly ticks, which are invisible in small doses but emerge in boldface when presented for full viewing on an extra-wide shelf. For starters, there is the familiar trope of playfully poking his Believer editors: He calls them the Polysyllabic Spree, a play on the band Polyphonic Spree, not that that matters. Hornby typically enters each column kidding that his editors — "fifteen horrifically enthusiastic young men and women who control the minds of everyone who writes for this magazine" or "the eighty horribly brainwashed young men and women who control this magazine" — are tyrants who demand and cajole his monthly reading lists.

Then there is Hornby's predilection for flat one-liners crowbarred anyplace he sees an opening. Example: Following a poetry excerpt by Beth Ann Fennelly that describes a painful childbirth, Hornby injects, "is now the appropriate time, incidentally, to point out the main advantage of adoption?" Wince — because that's soda water hitting your eye.

Indeed, this book is all wet with that kind of stuff, making it less of an exploration into why, who and how he reads than it is Hornby's grandiloquent pronouncements about British football, movies, his writing life and more. "Stuff I've Been Reading," the column, aims to present a free-form exploration into the mind of a reader who reads anything, everything. The book titles introducing each column confirm the thesis: They range from Junot Díaz to a Mötley Crüe biography.

However, constraints emerge. Hornby tried, but doesn't like, science fiction. He is charmed by the ambition and scope of Charles Dickens. He prefers novels and short story and essay collections, especially if friends or relatives, or just famous people he only kind of knows, are behind the keyboard. Fans of Sarah Vowell take notice: She is reviewed twice.

Buffering critics who might cry foul, Hornby offers: "Those of you who like to imagine that the literary world is a vast conspiracy run by a tiny yet elite cabal will not be surprised to learn that I read Rodney Rothman's book because Sarah recommended it, and she happened to have an advance copy because Rothman is a friend of hers. So, to recap: A friend of mine who's just written a book which I read and loved and have written about gives me a book by a friend of hers which she loved, so I read it and then I write about it. See how it works?"

We certainly do. Reading Hornby's columns — so many of them and so packed together — inevitably feels like crashing a dinner party with all of his many famous and unbelievably fascinating friends whose books are recommended — except nobody cares. Famous friends stroking one another is all around us in tabloid media, but this hipster salon is far less sexy.

The central problem is Hornby's thumbs are typically raised sky-high for much of what he reads, and his observations tend toward the superficial. Which leads to an inevitable question: What is it about a book essayist whose selections are questionable, tastes doctrinaire, and who seemingly likes everything?

Except for Cormac McCarthy. Keep this man away from Cormac McCarthy. The water in "Hot Tub" boils only when it comes to "The Road" and all its scary, apocalyptic nightmare stuff that causes Hornby to shudder. He will not go so far as to dismiss the novel outright — indeed, he agrees it's "brilliant." However, he questions the purpose of creating such a persuasive, but cruel, fictive world, saying, "it's also the job of artists to offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from lives that can occasionally seem unendurably drab …. (I)t's quite legitimate, I think, not to want to read 'The Road.'"

Maybe McCarthy should take him to lunch.

Mark Guarino is a staff writer with The Christian Science Monitor where he covers national news from the Midwest.

"Ten Years in the Tub"

By Nick Hornby, McSweeney's, 464 pages, $26

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