Nick Hornby Discusses Songs, Books

Nick Hornby is a fan’s fan, and has written the book to prove it.

Hornby’s latest work, Songbook, recently published in paperback, zeroes in on two key themes in Hornby’s previous novels: music and the art of being a fan. Music has occupied a central place in all of his work. In both High Fidelity and About a Boy, the narrators, who bear more than a passing resemblance to Hornby himself, use music as a tool to live by, measuring their lives in songs. Dispensing with the fictional complications of a novel, Hornby has now brought himself directly into his writing.

“All I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don’t like them as much as I do,” Hornby writes in the opening chapter of Songbook. The book that follows is a rambling, self-deprecating and often hilarious account of Hornby’s personal relationship with pop, from metal to folk to electronica.

Hornby’s definition of pop is broad enough to include Bob Dylan as well as Nelly Furtado. He has little time for snobbishness, though in a piece previously published in The New Yorker he surveys the Billboard Top Ten albums with a mixture of bewilderment, distaste and humor.

His writing is at its best when Hornby is expressing his personal connection to certain songs. The most moving passage describes a song written for the movie adaptation of About a Boy, which came to mean a great deal more to Hornby in his relationship with his autistic son than his own book, which gave rise to the song “A Minor Incident.”

Hornby calls this “the magical coincidences and transferences of creativity.”

“I write a book that isn’t about my kid, and then someone writes a beautiful song based on an episode in my book that turns out to mean something much more personal to me than my book ever did,” he said.

Pop music is Hornby’s creative fuel. “Music is energy. I hear something in the creativity of a song and I want to convert it into words,” he said in an interview earlier this month. When asked at a reading at First Parish Church in Cambridge why he doesn’t play music, Hornby responded, “I like music too much to want to do that to it.”

In person he is friendly and engaged, listening carefully before responding to questions about everything from the new Strokes album to the importance of concert reviews.

“My addiction to music survives on novelty. I need new songs to keep the wheels turning,” he said.

Some excerpts of his opinions on recent music: Andre 3000 or Big Boi? “Andre. ‘Hey Ya!’ is the song of the year.” Room on Fire, the new Strokes album? “I haven’t listened to it much, but it sounds a lot like the first one, which I liked. Only better.” The last Radiohead album? “I gave up on Radiohead after Kid A. That killed it for me. Also, I reviewed it at the time, and got hate-mail for ages afterwards. Don’t upset fans of people like Radiohead, they take it very seriously.”

Hornby, as you might have gathered, is the king of the mix-tape approach to music, which is on the rise again with the ascent of the iPod and the convenience of infinite playlists. The original hardcover edition of Songbook came with a Hornby mix CD featuring 11 tracks mentioned in the book.

You don’t need to hear the songs in order to appreciate Hornby’s feelings about them. In fact, seeing as no song ever means the same thing to different people, the CD might almost be a distraction from the universality (for music fans) of Hornby’s sentiment. But you could always download the songs if you really want to hear exactly what he’s talking about, including tracks by Aimee Mann, Bruce Springsteen and The Bible.

Weighing in on the subject of downloading, Hornby is both mystified and excited.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “Perhaps downloading music will turn music back to the days of local musicians playing locally, a sort of cottage industry. Perish the thought that I would ever be grateful to a record company, but they did act as a sort of sorting office. Soon we might have to just logon and look at the names of 10,000 bands and try and guess which ones we might like.”

Hornby is a spokesperson for music fans who feel the need for musical accompaniment in their lives wherever possible. Possibly the biggest revelation in Songbook is that it doesn’t matter why a song speaks to the listener, or whether it’s a throwaway pop song instead of a lyrical masterpiece. It is the connection that matters.

—Staff writer Andrew R. Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.