Two new books about reading are polar opposites. Alexander McCall Smith's musings are platitudinous while Nick Hornby reads like someone you’d love to chat with until the sun came up
If books are an intimate conversation between author and reader, then getting through Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You is like being stuck at a dinner party with the worst kind of bore, while Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading is the friend you’d sit up talking to until 5am, even though the wine is long gone and the sky is getting light.
It’s difficult to see who McCall Smith’s book is aimed at. It’s a self-acknowledged homage to Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, but whereas de Botton’s witty and erudite book assumed that the reader knew little about the early 20th century French novelist, McCall Smith seems to assume that his reader knows almost nothing about anything at all. Why else would he continually make the most prosaic statements as if they were original observations?
Over the course of his meandering analysis of Auden’s life and work we learn that “fascism was egregiously wicked” and “probably the greatest moral disaster” in Europe’s history; traditional English boarding schools were an “emotionally crippling system designed to produce a stiff upper lip” and that “the shape of our life is often determined by external factors such as geography and the sheer accident of being born into a particular society and a particular time”. On page after page, McCall Smith reveals the most startling gift for reducing any topic he touches into a series of leaden clichés.
His forays into literary criticism are equally bewildering. He tells us that Auden had a “curious trait of personalising the inanimate” — the anthropomorphism, as old as literature itself, seems to have passed him by — and then illustrates this banal observation by noting that in one poem a stream shouts boyishly and “shouting boyishly is clearly a human thing to do”.
Thankfully, McCall Smith doesn’t limit himself to solemnly stating the obvious; occasionally he provides some much needed variety by completely missing the point. He says he wishes that as a teenager someone had taken him “through a line-by-line exegesis of poems such as ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud'” before going on to criticise Auden for claiming that Freud “wasn’t clever at all: he merely told / The unhappy Present to recite the Past”. “The view that Freud was not clever is questionable; he was hardly dull,” McCall Smith humourlessly observes. Perhaps it’s not too late to take this 65-year-old novelist aside now and explain that this particular line is meant in jest.
He claims early on that What W.H. Auden Can Do For You is “not a hagiography”, yet only canonisation in the literal rather than the literary sense could justify the bizarrely religious language that McCall Smith uses to describe the poet. Auden is held up as “a healer”, a man who can “inspire us to be better than we currently are” and, much like the Son of God, someone “who might, if we allow him, really change our lives”. Any sense of the actual Auden — brilliant, depressive, chain-smoking and contradictory — is lost in the evangelical praise.
McCall Smith wouldn’t make it into the pages of Nick Hornby’s book, because Stuff I’ve Been Reading is a collection of Hornby’s columns for the Believer, an American literary journal that has a “no snark rule” on the basis that time spent trashing bad books could be better spent raving about the good ones. Written between 2006 and 2011, each column begins with a list of Books Bought and Books Read, with a frequent discrepancy between the two that will be familiar to anyone who is incapable of walking out of a bookshop empty-handed. “I am, at relatively modest expense, intent on maintaining a risible self-delusion about my intellectual curiosity,” Hornby ruefully explains.
In truth Hornby’s curiosity is wide-ranging and, more important, wonderfully infectious. The books he discusses in his engaging, conversational columns stretch from political thrillers and literary novels to non-fiction on Hollywood, climate change and British austerity. Although his tastes are starting to change in his sixth decade, he confesses that for most of his adult life he only enjoyed art of the 20th century — an attitude partly inspired by his stiffly traditional Cambridge English degree. “The quickest way to kill all love for the classics is to tell young people nothing else matters,” Hornby argues, “because then all they can do is look at them in a museum of literature.”
But he is frequently delighted to have his mindset challenged, whether it’s discovering the brilliance of Montaigne’s essays or being persuaded that only an insecure need to shun popular taste makes people shudder at the music of Celine Dion. “Those who invest heavily in cultural capital don’t like art that doesn’t exclude,” agrees a newly converted Hornby. “It’s confusing, and it doesn’t help us to meet attractive people of the opposite sex who think the same way we do.”
Hornby writes with elegance and wit, from the Sundance Film Festival “amid the snow and the painfully cold sponsored parties” to mischievously advising that one should never “read writers with an eye on posterity. They are deeply serious people, and by picking up their books now, you are trivialising them.” Unsurprisingly, given his own literary output, he has a healthy scepticism of the assumption that harrowing books more accurately reflect the “real world” than their more optimistic counterparts.
“Yes it’s the job of artists to force us to stare at the horror until we’re on the verge of passing out,” Hornby argues. “But 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.” His columns are full of tantalising glimpses into books of both varieties, titles you suddenly long to add to your own tottering pile of Books Bought. He makes the world feel larger and full of new ideas.