School of Rock

Mix master Hornbys Songbook

Feeling drinking-buddy close to Hornby's sensibility as I do, though, makes me feel privy to some of his weaknesses, some of which rise right out of his strengths. His geniality sometimes makes him a little lazy (Jackson Browne's "best songs are simply beautiful, and beauty is a rare commodity"). And his laudable hatred of snobs—the literary ones who won't give rock the time of day, or rock snobs who won't admit to liking Nelly Furtado—sometimes gets the better of him, so his very unpretentiousness makes him look philistine. "I dislike [classical music] (or, at least, I'm unaffected by it) because it sounds churchy, and because, to my ears at least, it can't deal with the smaller feelings that constitute a day and a week and a life, and because there are no backing vocals or bass lines or guitar solos, and because a lot of people who profess to like it actually don't really like any music . . . at all, and because it does not possess the ability to make me feel."

I hardly know what to make of this silly sort of generalizing, except to say it's the kind of defense mechanism an English writer of decidedly modest upbringing is likely to have living in a literary world populated by Oxford and Cambridge types. What Hornby, the man who championed the mix tape (as personal expression, as gift) for an entire generation, needs is for somebody to make him a classical mix tape: if he can get past his churlish distaste for classical poseurs, there's a world of unchurchy feeling, small and very, very large, waiting for him.

In his essay on Springsteen's "Thunder Road," which is Hornby's most beloved song ("There's no real competition"), he writes that "very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly." What he connects to in that song, I think—besides the galloping passion, the devotion to rock tradition, the lyricism—is what I quoted earlier, that sense of anxiety that Hornby noted: Springsteen's uncertainty about his position as an artist at all. Hornby's style, his sweet modesty of address, is always asserting smart, wonderful things while practically apologizing for taking up your time. He doesn't need to apologize, I want to tell him. Let me pour you another round.

Songbook by Nick Hornby; Riverhead Books. Paperback, 160 pages, $18.

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