Sharing the Love

There is a brillant bit in Nick Hornby’s classic novel High Fidelity where our hero Rob has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura, and the first album he listens to at home after is Yellow Submarine by The Beatles.  The reason? Because it’s the only album he owns that doesn’t remind him of anything. Not of his lost love, of any good or bad times, nada. Just a piece of music that he can listen to, enjoy on its own merits, wallow in the nostalgia, and package up for the next time, untainted by the vagaries of the human heart.

Now Rob is more than a music aficionado, he is something of a snob.  Which is fine, if you’re passionate about something, it’s almost inevitable.  And I have definitely become the same about books, that’s for certain.  But the reason I haven’t gone full snob is for the same reason as Rob above. I’m terrified of having my favourite books remind me of anything other than my love for them. So I tend to keep my all-time favourites to myself, to wax lyrical about them but encourage others to seek them out themselves if they so wish (which doesn’t tend to happen very often as no-one is a more avid reader than me in my social group) and move the discussion on to other books. Be protective, secretive and precious about them, basically.  To avoid an all-time great being tarnished by a bad memory.

High Fidelity is a good case in point, as it happens. I have currently lent that to somebody (who already loved the film so it wasn’t too much of a punt), and if I’m honest, there is a small part of me that regrets it.  Because I’m running the risk that the book will always remind me of her, and if something bad happens between us, I won’t be able to read the book without thinking about her.  And I would be genuinely upset if that happened.  I think it will probably be OK, mostly because we have a shared appreciation for the novel which has actually enhanced the book for me a bit.  Also I have a long history with the novel and it has infuenced my life in countless ways which are deeply entrenched and for which I will remain forever grateful. I don’t think the biggest emotional heartache could completely rid me of that feeling.

But you have to be so careful, with music or literature, anything creative that is special to you, really.  It’s the great balancing act; spreading your love of something that changed your life, in the hope that it inspires others too, against the great worry that that action will fundamentally effect your appreciation of the work.

High Fields and Hills

Two of my all-time favourite books were on the agenda this month. One a classic from my childhood (although in hindsight it’s debatable whether it is really suitable for kids) and the other a first novel that became a huge hit in the 1990s.

I first read Watership Down by Richard Adams over 20 years ago, in my early teens. It’s easy to realise why this book was such a smash with children – its a classic adventure story of questing rabbits with heroes and villains and all excitement and so on. It’s a decent length for young readers (my copy runs to about 480 pages) so I approached it as one of my first real reading challenges, along with Lord of the Rings, which in many ways is the book that spawned the fantasy genre and the idea of the noble quest.

In the interim years I picked the book up once or twice but never re-read it fully, until now. It’s obvious to say looking at it through an adult’s eyes, but there is so much more depth to the novel than just a simple adventure story. The first thing that struck me was the sheer beauty of the El-ahriarah mythology and the stories that the rabbits tell of him. These stories punctuate the novel at various points and are brilliant little vignettes that show how the tales of the Prince Rabbit influence the lives of the rabbits. Looking at it now you could make an argument that these stories draw heavily on religious symbols, but I (and Adams himself for that matter) disagree – it feels more the stuff of legend than anything specific.

I love the language of the book, too. Adams created the Lapine language himself, and it really only runs to a few words to describe themselves and the objects in their world. Hrududu for vehicle is still my absolute favourite. This language could be seen as extraneous to the story but I think it adds verisimilitude and gives the prose some punch.

Above all else, it’s simply a great story expertly written. Adams great strength is his descriptions of place and landscape, and the novel gave me pangs of homesickness for the English countryside that I haven’t really experienced since leaving. Such is the power of his prose. Sometimes all you want as a reader is a breathless, exciting tale of heroism and courage that can consume a few hours and keep you turning the pages. This is an expert example.

I think Nick Hornby is probably one of the UK’s most loved writers. His books carry a sort of ‘Everyman’ quality that appeal to vast swathes of the population and he has an ability to express feelings of everyday people that few can surpass. His first book Fever Pitch was an autobiographical essay about football and his relationship to it. What made the book a smash was his way of describing his emotions about the game which resonated with thousands of football fans who follow their clubs in the same, irrational manner up and down the land. He is a master of knowing what makes people tick, and exposing how they think and feel.

This quality was taken into his frst novel High Fidelity, which was also a bestseller. The plot is very much a well-trodden furrow – boy breaks up with girl, goes through some stuff, then gets back together with girl. Done many times before. But Hornby creates so many ‘I know people just like that’ moments that the book is a pure joy from start to finish. He absolutely nails the uncertainty that men feel in relationships and their sometimes fear of commitment, with at times pathos, others humour. The book is laugh out loud funny in many places.

Rob’s love of music in the novel, and he and his work colleagues obsession with talking and deconstructing it, appeals to everyone’s inner geek (if you have one). I feel quite the same way about books and every description of it strikes right to my very core. When you read a book and feel it is talking about you then you have something very powerful there – a connection between writer and reader that can reach across pages and span decades. This magic is what makes this novel so very special.