Christopher Stuart, March 19, 2008
I should say first that the two weeks I spent vacationing with the author on the Isle of Samos at the expense of the publisher in no way affected my judgment regarding Nick Hornby’s brilliant work Housekeeping vs. The Dirt.
In fact, the nearly daily delay in obtaining fresh towels after our swim in the Aegean were a constant reminder that my vigilance as an unbiased guardian of literature remained on solid ground, (as shifting as it seemed during the beach volleyball games with the Venezuelan women’s national team—again flown in by the publisher, who it turns out is not a faceless mega-national corporation, but a rather charming, though obviously overworked, fortysomething woman named Adrienne whose last name I never caught.)
I write fortysomething, because Nick Hornby, in the 1990s, was the progenitor of the thirtysomething novel. He achieved a kind of international literary success with his books High Fidelity and This Boy’s Life, or rather About a Boy, the other having been written by Tobias Wolff, my apologies. One of my first complaints is that the Powerbook I was given by Nick’s manager during the book tour includes a rather inferior piece of dictation software, but there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it, so let’s press on.
My second complaint is that there isn’t enough Britishisms in the book. You never hear him say “telly” or “lift” or “boot” or “biscuit” when he means cookie or “cookie” when he means “biscuit,” which leads me to the conclusion that the book was edited to appeal to an American audience, which is to this reviewer a rather obtuse attempt at lowering the author’s previously middlish-to-high standards in the hopes of selling more books. Well, if that’s the case, then it’s a rather close run thing that he’s getting any kudos at all. But, in the end, the book won me over.
This is a collection of unconventional book reviews written from February 2005 to July 2006 for a magazine called The Believer, based rather mysteriously in San Francisco, and run by what he refers to as the “Polysyllabic Spree”—white-robed acolytes of literature who burn the midnight oil at both ends in an attempt to void the collective literary colon of all disagreeable exegeses and mixed metaphors.
These are not so much reviews as ways for the author to make money by writing about books. Still, like the two weeks we spent on Samos, there is something here for everyone. The premise of the column can best be expressed by the author, who I might as well quote at this point, “So this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather, or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”
While I beg to differ with Nicky over this issue—I claim that there are indeed objective standards that can, and must, be adhered to—I will give him this: that there is room in the reviewing trade for a casual approach to discussing literature. Indeed, I found it charming and disarmingly naive for an established author to dip into the darker waters of literary review. And while his first few strokes were confident, and he finishes well, there are many months (it’s a monthly column) where he founders in search of a life-preserver, or at least of a fetching metaphor.
For the professional, unbiased, objective reviewer, like myself, who treads these perilous waters for a living, is it enough to order the flambé while pointing out that there is a standard which must be upheld or else we shall sink into the abyss of subjectivism, where nutbush57 in Omaha can write an online review and sway the course of Western Civilization?
While Nick’s choice of books runs the gamut from the Letters of Philip Larkin to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and back to John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts? with a sharp turn to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and a swoop and a duck beneath Voltaire’s Candide and a mad dash to Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation and under the fence again to Freakonomics, Nickie constantly berates himself for not having read enough, read poorly, or for having given in to a predilection for television and pop music, which in a quieter moment he confides that he considers rubbish except for a few bars of Mahler, but makes quite a nice living off of.
On the whole then, while the crepes tended to wilt in the afternoon, the reader will enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed my time in the Aegean, but would caution that Housekeeping vs. the Dirt does indeed contain a rather liberal amount of indentations.