He wrote a novel in which the narrator was female. It's just about the only example of cross-gender narratorship that didn't make me cringe. That counts for some kind of talent.
And his books make great movies. Vastly underrated movies.
The new book, The Polysyllabic Spree, is a collection of his "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns in The Believer. (This book will probably not be made into a movie, though I'd like to see someone try.)
Zaid's finest moment, however, comes in his second paragraph, when he says that "the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more."
That's me! And you, probably! That's us! "Thousands of unread books"! "Truly cultured"! Look at this month's list: Chekhov's letters, Amis's letters, Dylan Thomas's letters ... What are the chances of getting through that lot? I've started on the Chekhov, but the Amis and the Dylan Thomas have been put straight into their permanent home on the shelves, rather than onto any sort of temporary pending pile. The Dylan Thomas I saw remaindered for 15 quid (down from 50) just after I'd read a terrific review of a new Thomas biography in The New Yorker; the Amis letters were a fiver. But as I was finding a home for them in the Arts and Lit nonfiction section (I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey), I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. My music is me, too, of course, but as I only really like rock and roll and its mutations, huge chunks of me — my rarely examined operatic streak, for example — are unrepresented in my CD collection. And I don't have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children ... But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. Maybe that's not worth the 30-odd quid I blew on those collections of letters, admittedly, but it's got to be worth something, right?
Right on, Nick!
Review of the book in Salon:
Hornby is writing about the day-to-day process of being readers as most of us practice it — not following some neat scheme but reading without premeditation, going higgledy-piggledy from one subject to another, based on whim, recommendation, chance.
The result is less a column to read for insight into any one book (though there is that sometimes) than a column in which to recognize the habits that bind readers together, no matter the differences in what they read.
In which Hornby claims Dickens is "the greatest novelist who ever lived" for, among other reasons, the "jokes — proper, funny jokes, not 'literary' jokes."
Rule 1 in this essay on making book recommendations is a really good one:
If you really want people to read a book, buy a copy and give it to them. One of the best book recommenders I know swears by this policy. He says you can't reasonably expect them to read it if you won't put your money where your mouth is.
I've done that a few times in the past, but I'm reminded how effective it can be.
That said, I'm not going to buy you all a copy of a Nick Hornby book. (Heck, I don't know which I would choose to give you — you'd all get different ones, for different reasons.) Heck, why am I even referring to a rule on book recommendations — it doesn't really belong here, except in that it's a smart and decent thing, and that recommendations, whether a professional critic's or a friend's, are a big part of how we build the libraries that shape and describe our lives.
I just like Nick Hornby.