Online Edition: Spring 2003

Songbook by Nick Hornby

Songbook

Nick Hornby

McSweeney's Books ($26)

by Francis Raven

Songbook is essentially a mix tape of novelist Nick Hornby's writings about his favorite pop songs--not albums, not bands, but songs. This is how Hornby parses music; as he writes, "Songs are what I listen to, almost to the exclusion of everything else." It sounds like an idea riding towards disaster, and yet it completely pans out: Hornby masterfully lays out the vast territory of experience that is the pop song. The inclusion of a CD containing many of the songs Hornby writes about also helps make this unusual book work.

Hornby informs the reader that when he began the book he had assumed the writings would focus on associations between the songs and the times and places where he had heard them, but luckily for the reader it didn't turn out that way because "if you love a song, love it enough for it to accompany you throughout the different stages of your life, then any specific memory is rubbed away by use." Hornby loves many songs this much--first and foremost Springsteen's "Thunder Road," which by the author's own count he has listened to some 1,500 times since 1975.

Of course, Hornby knows that most of the pop songs he is currently listening to will soon be discarded, but this does not diminish his present pleasure in them. "Maybe disposability is a sign of pop music's maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse," he muses. This said, Hornby proposes that "sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly.... It's a process something like falling in love." The difficulty that these two theses present is one of the major problems of contemporary life: is the self really anything if even those moments of clarity about who we are are perfectly disposable? Hornby does not answer this question but seems hopeful on the subject, a hope that stems from his belief in the beauty of songs.

At $26, Songbook is expensive; Hornby quips it's an organic book and "with organic stuff, you always pay more for less." But all of the proceeds from the sale of the book are being donated to Treehouse, a U.K. charity that helps to educate children with autism and related communication disorders, and 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing lab based in the mission district of San Francisco, so you can feel better about the purchase. The expense of the book is also justified by the CD that accompanies it. It's a pleasure to be able to read Hornby's essays and listen to some of the songs that they're about.

Perhaps what is most fantastic about Songbook isn't the general metaphysical map of the pop song it lays out, but the fact that Hornby's descriptions, evaluations, and metaphors about the songs are so apt. One hopes it might spur a new golden age of the rock review by encouraging the phenomenological review of the single song, the likes of which haven't been fully realized since the 1970s.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents