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31 Songs

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31 Songs Book Cover I picked up a copy of Nick Hornby's 31 Songs at Stansted airport when leaving the UK in March. It's a very pretty little book, with its sleeve printed in a slightly rough way. And by being on the topic of 31 Songs it certainly appealed to me for several reasons.

Not the least of these reasons was the fact that I enjoyed reading Nick Hornby's first three books, including Fever Pitch. Anyone who knows the disregard I harbour for football, must marvel the writing skills of someone who can write a book on that very topic and make me read it cover to cover. The trick there was, in my opinion, that the book focused mainly on a person rather than on the game. Thus making it more interesting for people like me in the same way that stories about 'hackers' are unbearably dull if they focus on the technology rather than on the people (the film 23 is a very fine example for the latter, focusing on people that is).

Unfortunately I found 31 Songs disappointing once I started reading it on the plane from Oslo back home. I even stopped reading to pick it up again and read it at more leisure back home, which I did – still being disappointed. This may be partly for my high anticipations regarding this book – a good author writing on a cool topic – and the uneasy feeling of stupidity, suspecting to have been conned into buying this book by that very fact: I guess I should be pretty much in the centre of its target audience. In the days where money and attention are our most valuable assets, the suspicion of having been coerced into buying and reading a book that might as well be a silly marketing ploy can be quite nagging.

But I doubt that this caused my disappointment. After all, I wouldn't have cared much about that point, had I liked the book to begin with. It's more of an afterthought. The next obvious reason for not liking the book would be the choice of music. I don't think that applies either, though. Firstly, after High Fidelity, Nick Hornby has enough credibility in the music department to be safe from horrible surprises. Secondly, he also is predictable enough to make the sort of songs he chose not entirely random but fit into the picture. No disappointment to be found there.

Thirdly, he has songs that I consider spot-on: Led Zeppelin, respect: Santana, Bob Dylan, find highly amusing: The Avalanches, occasionally like: Badly Drawn Boy, The Beatles and can otherwise relate to: Teenage Fanclub, Ben Folds Five, Ani DiFranco. So there's enough in there for me not to complain about. I also enjoy reading The War Against Silence or listening to Dave's freeform goodness radio station although it's about 70% music I don't know, so I don't think Nick Hornby's choice of music was a major cause for me not to like the book.

Surely, his choice of music wants to tell us certain things: Led Zeppelin tells us that he's been around for a while, having seen them live and all, so does Bob Dylan. Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen tell us he's a bit of a sad old sod as well and sometimes allows himself soft spots of bad taste that may even lead to Nelly Furtado. The latter also suggests out that despite being in his forties he hasn't lost touch and is still interested in popular music. And so do Teenage Fanclub and a lot of the remaining name-dropping of band names such as Belle and Sebastian within the texts. Surely more analysis can be done by looking at the genres and messages they represent: The queer, the broken, the old, the electronic etc. but even that is not my main complaint about the book.

It's a choice that had to be made. Of course he wanted to present as many different songs and styles as possible, showing off his broad tastes as well as his knowledge. This may drift into a slightly patronising name-dropping fest at times, a characteristic of many music writers, and apparently hard to avoid. On top of that, the pieces are filled with personal anecdotes, which can be fairly boring. So let me state my main points:

Writing about music in an engaging or thought provoking way is hard – I mostly fail to do so and so do many writers in music magazines. While Nick Hornby may have the back-catalogue of knowledge, I don't think he's terribly good at writing about music. Furthermore, reading the book made clear to me that I appreciate Nick Hornby as a novelist and that I hardly care about anecdotes of his life. That, I think, was he main disappointment. He has proven that he's good at writing novels, even slightly biographical and football related novels. So why does he bore us with obvious facts like that's is OK to leave a concert if you're bored?

I don't want to dismiss his writing in the book completely. In fact, I do think that it would have made a nice series of newspaper columns or, with a couple of links thrown in, a good series of blog entries. A blog seems to be a good environment to write about things you care for even if they're not what you're best at. It gives you more room to digress, mix styles and try out new things. It's also non-commercial, giving you yet more freedom.

Bookmark: 24-03-2003 flight FR9823 Stanjefjord to Frankfurt Hahn.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

June 6, 2003, 21:01

Tagged as book, music, nick hornby.

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