Writing About Books: Nick and Zadie

polysyllabicspreeI’ve been reading two sets of essays, Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree and Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and been surprised to note I’m enjoying Nick far more than I’m enjoying Zadie. Before we go any further, I must make one thing clear: these are BOTH very good books. They represent wildly differing perspectives in writing about books, however, and that’s worth thinking about, as how we write about books says a great deal about what we value them for, and what we engage with, and the ways we use stories in our lives.

Poor old Zadie Smith suffered in this instance because her essays are based in traditional literary criticism; they are very clever, very eloquent, mixing biography and critique together, and the sentences collect like pearls on a string. I felt I was reading very nice Cambridge literature essays, and for obvious reasons I’m a little allergic to that right now. Nick Hornby exploits his workaday blokeish persona and spends a great deal of time in amusing self-deprecation, pondering why he can’t help but buy more books than he can read. In one of the articles he describes how the birth of a child sends him rushing into a bookstore, convinced months will now pass without another chance to buy books. And how the next three days, walking the baby takes him past and into another three bookshops because what else is there to do with a newborn but hang about browsing? Hornby’s articles constantly bring his reading life and his real life onto a collision course, and they are very funny. He’s very present in his writing, railing at stupid reviews he’s read, enthusing about books he’s loved, the kind of man who loses his temper quickly and who cries at sentimental happy-sad endings, I’d bet. Zadie Smith is present too in her essays but she’s a much cooler customer; I never got the feeling that she had been compelled to write about a book because it had made her cry. Incidentally, both of these authors went to Cambridge, it’s just that Nick Hornby hides it better.

ChangingmindI was wondering why Nick Hornby’s articles made me keep on reading, the way you can’t stop putting Maltesers in your mouth, whilst Zadie Smith’s essays, though extremely admirable, made me put the book down as soon as I’d reached the end of one. I came to the conclusion that Hornby’s kept reminding me of all the ways I express and experience my love of books, the stupid things I might do, like buying a book that might never be read but which nevertheless cries out to be possessed, or walking into a lamppost because you can’t put your book down, even for the essential task of looking where you are going. Why do we read at all? Because books have this intense and immediate effect upon us. From the first sentence of a good book, you’re in it, relating to the characters, entering their world. Hornby evokes a world all book lovers will know, no matter what we read. When he talks about books he’s good at giving an evocative synopsis, and so his writing about books also has an easy, immediate effect on the reader. With Zmith’s essays, you have to be in the frame of mind in which you are feeling the love before you begin, because what comes next requires concentration and effort.

This is not to say that the effort isn’t worth it. Zadie Smith can come out with some gorgeous sentences and excellent points. Talking of Felice Bauer she says: ‘For Kafka she is symbol: the whetstone upon which he sharpens his sense of self.’ That’s a lovely insight that deepens as you gaze upon it and there are many such nice points. Zadie Smith’s intellect is tough and uncompromising, it doesn’t let up and wallow in cheap jokes. I got the feeling that she is a naturally serious-minded and intelligent reader. Talking of her own writing, she describes how she keeps a particular quote about her at all times, to sustain the right sort of atmosphere for her work in progress. The current one ‘is a thought of Derrida’s and very simple: “If a right to a secret is not maintained then we are in a totalitarian space.”’ This does not strike me as being most people’s understanding of simple. After all the quote is from Derrida, who, if he ever suspected he’d written a simple sentence, would probably not be able to get out of bed the next morning. If Zadie Smith thinks Derrida can be simple and direct, then hers is a pretty classy mind. And there are excellent reasons why we should put ourselves in contact with classy minds, even if they require a little more work from us. Nick Hornby describes it wonderfully when he is won over by Marianne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping:

I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading Housekeeping, I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage (not that Housekeeping is inaccessible, but it is deep and dark and rich): it’s possible to whiz through it without allowing it even to touch the sides, and a bit of side-touching has to happen if a book is going to be properly transformative. If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul?’

This is a good point: what will I retain from The Polysyllabic Spree? Not much, I regret to say, except for a few good anecdotes, and a list of yet more books I’m trying not to purchase. I think I read it too fast and it may not have touched the sides. However, am I so sure that Zadie Smith’s essays will stick with me longer? I found that they worked at the level of each individual sentence, but I had to keep drawing back to remind myself what it was we were basically talking about. This is a classic error of the serious literary critic – the more complex the thoughts about literature, the better the signposting has to be, and signposting is very hard to do well. Basically, it’s the way a writer keeps reminding the reader what the point of the analysis is. Or, to put it another way, signposting indicates the simple horizon of truth we are headed towards beyond the immediate complexity of the thinking. A really fine piece of writing about books will manage to bring both into harness, and it must, because the best literature shows us how life is both very simple and highly complex at the same time. That’s basically what writing books is all about, the way that extraordinary paradox of simplicity and complexity knocks us sideways all the time.  So maybe my reaction shows that, for me, Zadie Smith attempts to do something very difficult and doesn’t always pull it off, whereas Nick Horby aims much lower, but hits the bullseye with his insights every time. Although he jokes around a lot about his tendency to buy too many books, he ends up recognising a more profound point to it:

I suddently had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. […] 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.’

And, of course, we should never underestimate the advantage that critics have when they say the things we want to hear.

[In the interests of accuracy and fairness, I must point out that only the first section in Zadie Smith's collection of essays is about literature. She goes on to write about writing and film and her family and I enjoyed these essays. But you've seen the length of this review! I could hardly talk about every topic she'd covered.]

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39 thoughts on “Writing About Books: Nick and Zadie

  1. Oh how interesting! I read Changing My Mind and absolutely loved it — it made me think it would be worthwhile after all to give David Foster Wallace a try. Whereas I never get anywhere with Nick Hornby’s essays, for some reason. Something about his writing irritates me, and I’m never inspired to read the books he talks about.

    • I had thought it would be that way round for me and was surprised it wasn’t. But maybe you are more serious-minded than I am at the moment (I am VERY flighty and frivolous and this is not necessarily a good thing!).

  2. Both of these have been on my horizon for some time, but not having a baby to walk I haven’t yet got into a bookshop in order to buy either. I loved that anecdote. I was once asked as part of a quiz to see if I was really a bibliophile whether I could ever go shopping without going into a bookshop. This seemed a really stupid question to me. Why else would one go shopping unless it was to go into a bookshop?

    • Oh I love this! It’s so true, why on earth would you go shopping if books weren’t involved? Even supermarket shopping has picked up now that it’s possible to pick up a book bargain there. I think there would be interest for you in both of these essay collections, as in neither case is the love for books in any doubt!

  3. I loved this comparative review! I too really enjoyed Hornby’s collection (in fact, it’s one of the first books I ever blogged about), but for me I think Smith’s essays will wear better, at least the book ones. I greatly admire her essay on Middlemarch but I think my favorite in that collection is the Forster one — oddly, maybe, as I am not a Forster buff and didn’t enjoy ‘On Beauty.’

    • I haven’t read the Middlemarch essay yet, but it must be good if you admire it. I did like the one on Forster, though (and I do like him as a writer). I’m hoping to listen to Middlemarch at some point this year, and when I’ve got the novel clearer in my mind, I’m sure I’ll enjoy Zadie Smith’s essay more.

  4. I read The Polysyllabic Spree a long time ago. Although I don’t remember much about the book, I distinctly remember where I was when I read it, and I remember being amused, thoroughly enjoying Hornby’s essays. As for Smith, well, I’ve never made it very far into anything she’s written, whether it is an essay or a novel. Unlike Hornby’s essays, I may have remembered her more “critical” essays if I had made it through one but I doubt that I would remember anything specific about the experience.

    • And Housekeeping sits in my TBR bookcase awaiting the time when I’ll read it because of Hornby’s recommendation. I had never read any of her work when Hornby mentioned it, though I have since and really liked what I’ve read.

    • That was very much my experience of the Hornby – amusement and a great deal of enjoyment! I have read Housekeeping, and whilst I found it quite a melancholy novel, I did admire the writing.

  5. Loved this review…it reminded me of how profoundly my reading life was changed, as a teenager, by a book called “The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies,” a series of essays by my favorite author. That book led me to Mervyn Peake, Iris Murdoch, Joyce Cary, and Patrick White. There is something uniquely compelling about writers writing about other writers.

    • Oh you remind me that Robertson Davies has been on my list of must-reads for a dreadfully long time. I really MUST get to him this year. I completely agree, I adore writers on writers. Not only do they get behind what’s going on in the writing, they express it brilliantly too.

  6. I’m a huge fan of Nick Hornby’s essays and always wondering why they are not reviewed more often.
    I just think his enthusiasm is so infectious and he really gives a damn whether the subject is too mundane or not and in the end manages to say something either witty or intelligent about anything.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I so appreciated the humour of his writing, but that didn’t mean he was compromised on the quality of his thought. He still had some great insights along the way.

  7. “all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self” is a rather narrow view of what counts for self-expression! Or is Hornby making this statement primarily for the set of people who write books? I certainly don’t agree with it.

    • No? Oh it worked for me. When I look around at all my shelves and see every book I own, every one of which contains something that has intrigued or attracted me, I get to see the breadth and depth of my intellectual life, both real and potential. Even though there are millions of my words on this blog, only a small fraction of the books I own are represented here, only a small fraction of my interests and my curiosity get to be expressed. I wonder whether there isn’t a difference between the expression of self and self-expression? The latter sounds purely like writing or other forms of creative activity to me, whereas the former encompasses more abstract domains too.

      • Probably my comment wasn’t clear – what I meant was the emphasis on BOOKS. When I look around me at my books I see only a part of the depth and breadth of my life (real or otherwise)..

  8. I enjoy both of these authors – oddly, I prefer it when Smith writes nonfiction and Hornby writes fiction! I have not read the Polysyllabic spree and thus have added it to by ever-growing TBR list. Right now I’m stubbornly trying to make it through Marilyn Brook’s Book of The People, which I know I’ll enjly if I can ever properly fall into it – something I’m struggling with at the moment.

    • Oh I know exactly what you mean about properly falling into a book – that can be so elusive sometimes! I do think you’d like The Polysyllabic Spree, and the best thing about essay collections is that you can read one in the small space of time between putting a child to bed and going to bed oneself, and feel like something intellectual has been achieved!

  9. What a marvelous comparison between the two! I love the way Hornby writes about books and I’ve read all his Believer column collections. His exuberance is infectious and he makes me happy to be a reader. Do I remember any of his articles or points months or years after reading the book? No. I only remember the pleasure. I have the Smith book but haven’t read it though I have read a few of her essays before. I like her writing too. It gives me pleasure in a different way than Hornby’s, more intellectual. I might not remember her essays either but am more likely to remember something she says about a book which enriches my reading of that book. What I like best is I can enjoy both Hornby and Smith and that makes me an even happier reader. :)

    • Ah, I felt sure you would have enjoyed both, Stef! Good for you. They both have wonderful things to say, in their differing manners, and I completely agree that Hornby is infectiously exuberant and that Smith can be very enriching.

  10. I will look for both these books. Thank you so much for your review. I have read Zadie Smith’s book On Beauty and enjoyed it. I have also started White Teeth, and plan to finish it sometime. I think highly of her literary skills and her intelligence but somehow, even though she brings into fiction a lot of important social issues, and even though I do find her writing and characters memorable, I am partial to Nick Hornby’s writing and wit — they have more immediacy, grip you by the guts.

    • I have White Teeth on my shelf and hope to get to it soon too (I also enjoyed On Beauty). And I really like what you say about Nick Hornby’s immediacy. Yes, that’s very much one of the qualities that really appealed about his essays.

  11. What a wonderful article! That comment by Hornby about reading which doesn’t touch the sides resonated with me especially. It’s made me realise that the books I’ve enjoyed the most have been those which did touch the sides even if its a stretch to say they were transformative. Maybe it’s the difference between reading and consuming.

    • Thank you! I think it’s often the case that some of the best or most memorable reading experiences come from rising to a challenge. What we struggle with can be truly enriching if we get to grips with it. I think you’re right – that books can be consumed, and of course that can be a lot of fun, too! Wisdom AND escapism, that’s the value of reading.

  12. I’ve only read White Teeth by Smith and High Fidelity by Hornby; both books I enjoyed immensely. Both essay collections sound like they are worth exploring if I come across them. I just finished DFW’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and frankly his essay on post-post modernism was frankly way over my head. But the rest was more accessible to my puny brain.

    • Ha, I have to confess that DFW is one of the authors who does NOT grace my must-read-one-day list, which is in some ways a relief, to finally find one I am okay with placing quietly to one side! But I do think you’re someone who would enjoy both collections, and they are both very good in their different ways.

  13. Pingback: “Middlemarch in Six!” Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  14. I think essays are a bit like speeches, in that the delivery and occasion matter more for them than for fiction or poetry. What you say about sticking to the sides is even more true for poetry, which is best for feeling complications and so often has to be presented in a complicated way.

    • Oh I love what you say about essays being like speeches. That is so true. And yes, definitely poetry plays with deferring its meaning, so that we have to hold a lot in our heads before we understand why we’re holding it. That’s unusual for us to do, but a salutary lesson.

  15. I particularly agree with Hornby’s “epiphany” moment: the opinion that the books contained in our personal libraries do say a great deal about ourselves – perhaps not the ones we acquire through gifts or by default, but at least the “whimsical purchases” do to a very great extent. I’ve never read anything by either Smith or Hornby (although I do like the film About A Boy for which Hornby wrote the screenplay- which I own on DVD…okay, if we’re being really honest here, it could be that I simply love to look at Hugh Grant and don’t give a flip about the screenplay). P.S. I can’t understand anything Derrida says and Derridean deconstruction makes my head hurt.

    • Grad, deconstruction used to make my head hurt, too. Derrida’s book nearly went out a train window at one point. Wouldn’t have thrown Hugh Grant out, though! Yes, I liked that saying about our personal libraries – mine certainly shows all the things I’ve been curious about over time, and that’s quite a lot of curiosity, all in all! :)

  16. The older I get and the more literary criticism (“high” or “low”) that I read, the more it becomes a necessity for me that the criticism lead you to the work it’s about. Poetry criticism should make you want to read poetry; literary criticism should make you want to read books. If it’s just criticism for the sake of thinking about ways you can think, I feel it’s failed. And in that way, if in no other, I think Hornby succeeds brilliantly!

    • I really like what you say here. I couldn’t agree more, though I’d never thought of it in that formulation before. But yes, the criticism should lead you to the work, and that is exactly the value of it. Thank you for that wonderful insight!

  17. I have a soft spot for Nick Hornby.. Would never have discovered the novels of Anne Tyler if I it hadn’t been for his recommendation. Very fond of High Fidelity, too.

    • Oh that’s right, he IS a fan of Anne Tyler isn’t he? (I am, too!) I wouldn’t have thought I’d like the ‘bloke-ish’ angle so much, but he does it very well, very gently and amusingly. A soft spot is a good way to describe it!

  18. I enjoyed your comparison and how different the two writers are, very much, Litlove. I have read The Polysyllabic Spree and have a list of books to get, that I still haven’t found here. I haven’t bought Smith’s book of essays because it is serious essays about literature and I am not in the mood for them. I know as an old English Honours student I know how to criticize text, and look for meaning. But it took me many years to undo the effects of my degree so that I could simply enjoy reading again. I don’t always want to read for deeper meaning, and maybe that’s the difference between the two books of essays: One is for pleasure (though he takes his reading seriously, he loves what he does), and one is for merit, to draw the meaning from life around her. Both very valid points about coming to books. And yes, I will get Smith’s book at some point, it’s been on my list for a little while now! lol I do love literature, I just don’t want to always be serious about it. Lovely, thoughtful review again, LItlove.

    • I know exactly how you feel. I never thought the day would come when I wouldn’t want to read analytically, but lately that approach just hasn’t spoken to me so much. I’m sure that’s why poor Zadie got the rough end of this deal. She writes very well, and includes much that is from a personal perspective and not fiercely academic. But even so, I found Hornby’s essays just slipped down so easily and they introduced me to things I would never have dreamed of reading. And even talking about books I know I’d never read, he was still interesting and amusing. And that’s okay – happily there are books for every mood out there, and the trick is to find a good fit! Thank you for your lovely comment; you always have such interesting things to say.

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