Nick Jagger


Nick Hornby

For another example of an author who writes about his reading jags—and who is the source for this phrase—check out Nick Hornby, who writes the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading Column” for The Believer magazine. My first encounter with Nick Hornby was through a couple of his novels. Later, during a bookstore browse, I came across The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of fourteen of his “Been Reading” essays. This began a Nick Hornby spree of my own, leading next to Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, a kind of sequel.

In appreciation for his artful writing in this genre, I’ve taken to calling Hornby “Nick Jagger.” He contributes an essay at a pace of one entry per month. Each entry begins with two columns, the left column listing “Books Bought” and the right column listing “Books Read.” In the essay that follows, Hornby charts his reflections on items in the right-hand column.

It’s not unusual for my own reading jags to take a new turn because of an item on the Hornby list.

Nick Hornby Interviews

New Page and Post Category


Today I’ve created a new blog category called “Reading Jags.” I’ve written a page that describes the aims that guide my posts to this category.

Get Thee to the Novel!


This is Cynthia Ozick’s advice. It’s a vital antidote to the crowding of the mind by the . . . well, by the crowd. Ozick values “The Din in the Head,” the title of her essay in defense of the novel.

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick

Problem? That special form of consciousness that is the unconstrained play of the mind is overwhelmed with noise from the outside world. The crowd, the human community, is her metaphor for this noise, because it is such a typical source of the noise. The problem has worsened with “the ratcheting up of technology.” So many things contrive to sublimate the maelstrom of the heart, “that relentless inner hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread.”

Solution? Reading that returns one to interiority. Two forms of literature have this power, and both are sadly neglected and increasingly hard to come by: the personal essay and the literary novel. “Literary grandeur is out of style.”

Why does Ozick value the din in the head over the din of the crowd? Din—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a welter of discordant sounds.” Who wants that going on in his head?

It may be that our self-saturation with inputs from a manufactured world is welcome precisely for its power to silence the din in the head. Ozick believes we need rest stops along the information highway. Our obsession with the delivery system of one kind of knowledge deafens us to another source of knowledge. Yes, knowledge. The literary novel imparts knowledge, but not systematically. Thus, it is not a delivery system. But there is truth in fiction, truth that surfaces through varied “cobwebby knowings.”

There are truths that have that cobwebby texture in our minds. It can’t be helped. And there’s no knowing them, at least initially, without this sort of acquaintance. But do we prize this sort of knowledge? Arguably, we do not. It is more likely that we are confounded by the claim that this is a kind of knowledge.

I believe that there is such knowledge and that it is foundational to the knowledge enterprise. Our reasons for believing so much of what we believe are often beyond articulation. And yet they are sound. They ground much of what we know through a peculiar form of consciousness, experience that is possible only under conditions of quietude. But what’s the novel got to do with that? The novel is the distillation of imagined experience. By reading I am able to experience what is otherwise beyond my frame of reference. And this puts me in cognitive contact with truths whose nature determines how they can be known. I concur with Ozick; reading carefully crafted fiction is one way they can be known.

Cynthia Ozick’s essay can be found in One Hundred Great Essays, edited by Robert Diyanni.

Cynthia Ozick Links:

Quotations: The Intellectual Life


“. . . the history of thought is the laboratory of the thinker . . . .”

—Eugene R. Fairweather

“So I’m not educated. I learned my stuff. I’m a heart surgeon, sure, but I’m just a mechanic.”

—Character named Mel, in Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

“The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes./. . . . The history of my stupidity will not be written./For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.”

—From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Account,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

“Most of us hate to think. Five minutes of thought can be more terrifying, more energy-draining than days and days of routine or habitual activity. Your mind is intrinsically thrifty, and prefers to do things the way it has done them before. It sees its primary business as establishing effective channels for action, and resists altering a channel that has become established, to say nothing of constructing a new one that causes anxiety.”

—Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time

“I’m a stenographer of my mind.”

—Allen Ginsberg, poet (1926-1997)

“Your best thought is imbedded [sic] in chunks of your worst thought.”

—Mark Levy, Accidental Genius

“Friends of the human race and of what is holiest to it! Accept what appears to you most worthy of belief after careful and sincere examination, whether of facts or rational grounds; only do not dispute that prerogative of reason which makes it the highest good on earth, the prerogative of being the final touchstone of truth.”

—Immanuel Kant, “What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?”

“Most evidently, we cannot give up on the principle of non-contradiction, bold but wayward logicians notwithstanding.”

—Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan, The Agnostic Inquirer: Revelation from a Philosophical Standpoint

Truly Cultured


What does it mean to be “truly cultured”? Here’s what Zaid said, or wrote, in his book So Many Books: “. . . the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.” (That’s Gabriel Zaid, by the way.)

Heartened by this keen observation, and taking the point further, Nick Hornby writes that “with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”

So if you need to streamline your holdings because you’ve long since run out of room for new volumes, one rule may be to ask of a given book, “What does your presence in my library say about me? Is that who I am? And whether it is or not, is that how I want to be known?”

Book and Briar


The second stanza of the five-stanza poem, “I Have a Few Friends,” by Canadian Poet Robert Service [1874-1958] elebrates the friendship of book and briar:

I have some friends, some honest friends,

And honest friends are few;

My pipe of briar, my open fire,

A book that’s not too new;

My bed so warm, the nights of storm

I love to listen to.

Source: Collected Poems of Robert Service

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