I ran across this at a library. It was on display and it basically jumped into my hands. Just like that. I didn’t even know I was looking for it. Thus is the power of libraries. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt is a delightfully engaging collection of Hornby’s book reviews for the Believer magazine which is run by a gaggle of overbearing editors Hornby calls the Polysyllabic Spree. Hornby’s angle for these reviews is unassuming and certainly not time sensitive which bodes well for me as I picked up this collection a good eight years after publication.
Hornby’s collection is “writing about reading, as opposed to writing about individual books.” This allows Hornby to engage the reader on a level closer to firm ground. He’s done the ‘book review’ gig before, now he wants us to join him in reading adventures, and he offers up books that he “wants to read.”
Each month Hornby presents two lists: books bought; books read. It’s a lovely way to go about it because that’s usually the way we go about it. We discover books, buy them, or check them out of libraries, put them on the pile and dive in, or we get sidelined. Inevitably our bought pile grows quicker than our read pile. And just like us, Hornby isn’t buying only front list “must reads of the day” but also tossing in recommendations from friends and books that fall off the shelves.
We’re offered up choice volumes from the latest Ian McEwan (for 2005) to C. K. Chesterton. What we get is how story and the reading experience are interconnected. We can see how a play by Michael Frayn relates to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. Hornby is adept at the book reviewer waltz but he’d rather rock with the rest of us in the mosh pit for this collection. And we get a wide swath of offerings.
I like a book that cuts across from Marilynn Robinson’s sublimely powerful Housekeeping which Hornby calls “a mystical work about the dead and how they haunt the living; if books can work as music then Housekeeping served as the soundtrack to the footage from New Orleans” while at the same time skewering the volumes of Philip Larkin’s letters which reminds you “forcibly that the ability to write fiction or poetry is not necessarily indicative of a particular refined intelligence, no matter what we’d like to believe; it’s a freakish talent.”
We also get to discover books we’d usually not bump into such as Jess Walter’s earlier books Citizen Vince and Over Tumbled Graves and we see why maybe it’s not such a good idea to re-release restored classics like Warren’s All the King’s Men. And anytime you get a paragraph that ties together a great poet’s letters and insipid pop tunes is time well spent. There’s a great riff by Hornby about buying a book from an Amazon penny seller and the implications of the seller and the author about said price. As Hornby strays afield we gladly tag along because he’s as funny as he is sharp. Ostensibly we enter book review collections to discover new books or authors and Hornby doesn’t disappoint and we get so much more than expected.