Reading a Writer’s Reading

Let me unpack that title: I am about three-quarters of the way through Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, by Nick Hornby, in which he writes about what he’s been reading.

I stumbled on this book while browsing through my public library’s database, looking for books about writing. It came up as the fourth hit in a search that also included Writers on Writing, Volume II from the New York Times, and On Writing, by Stephen King, so I put it on hold (after over two decades, the Dewey Decimal System continues to elude me, so I order my library books online, make the staff do the footwork for me, and go pick it up at the front desk a day or two later. Brilliant). When I took this book home, I was a little surprised by what it was: an enormous doorstop of a book, with the entire collection of Nick Hornby’s column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” in the Believer Magazine, from its inception in 2003 to 2013.

Nick Hornby writes this monthly column about all the books he read, how he chose them, and the life context in which he read them. Normal book critics tend to just write about what they thought of the book (devoid of context and, often, decency). Hornby’s more comprehensive picture is much closer to my everyday reading experience, and I love it. Hornby also happens to be an author, screenwriter, book critic, and all around good-guy, so his writing is clever and so very funny.

After my initial expectation-adjustment (I’m not sure why I was thinking it would teach me how to be a writer), I was prepared for a lot of great book reviews and recommendations. I got that in spades – I have a pad of paper next to my chair and am constantly jotting down things to look up, books to add to my list, and favorite quotations. But I’m getting so much more out of this than a list of books to read – I’m learning about what makes books good, what makes them important, what makes writers successful or influential or long-lasting. I’m reminded of the importance and pleasures of reading, and the purpose of literature in our culture.

I’ve been ignoring my friends and family in favor of reading this book, it’s that engrossing. I’m well on my way to finishing this  500-page monstrosity in less than a week. And after that? I have a very long list of very good books to look forward to.

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