Pardon me for giving it a little Kanye there, but it’s hard not to get excited about books [geek alert!]. I have so many favourites I’ve never been able to compose any properly reflective Top 5 that sums up my whole history of (avid) reading. There are books that are meaningful at different stages of your life, too – Blyton becomes Atwood; Sweet Valley High becomes 50 Shades of Grey (seriously, it’s a continuum). Awhile back I guest posted for the fabulous Enid Bite’em about Nick Hornby’s How to be Good, one of my very favourite books for a whole host of reasons. Enid is taking a little bloggy break at the moment, so I thought I’d repost my thoughts on the Good Book here. Note also that I have been flat out with my work life balance just lately (balance? Huh!) AND I’m packing for a girls’ weekend away (WOOT!) so forgive me for recycling material!
On Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good
This is a favourite book of mine in the sense that I love the writing, but also in the sense of the actual physical book. The copy I own was a chance find whilst treasure hunting in a second hand bookstore in North London some years ago. North London is a place that holds a lot of special memories for me (eternally romanticised in my imagination now that I’m resident in Brisbane, Australia) but it also forms the backdrop for most of Nick Hornby’s novels. His work evokes the sights and sounds of places like Islington and Holloway in a way that catapults me straight back to some of my favourite hangouts, and suggests that he, too, imagines this part of the world as a complex and evocative locale.
My copy of How to be Good is also an ‘uncorrected proof copy’ – which means it’s a copy that was distributed by the publisher to second-round proof readers and book reviewers early in the publication process. Strictly speaking, these books should never turn up in second hand shops; they are “made available on a confidential basis”, as the inside front cover tells us, and are not meant be redistributed because they still contain typos and sentences which may never make it to the final cut. To me, these books are highly symbolic: they represent the author doing the best that he or she can possibly do and YET there are still flaws. They’ve written, they’ve read, they’ve re-read, they’ve phoned a friend, they’ve mustered up the courage to submit it to a publisher, the publisher thinks it’s great and worthy of publication but on Page 257 no one has noticed that ‘and’ is written twice in a row and there’s an errant apostrophe in ‘carrot’s’.*
And (in a painfully obvious segue) I think this is all a little bit like life. We try as hard as we can to get it right, but sometimes we simply make mistakes. And sometimes, we think we’re completely on top of things, while in fact we’re teetering precariously on a pile of potential disasters. And sometimes, our own idea of what’s right, or good, or correct is very different from someone else’s. This is the point (and thank you for coming on the journey to get here) of Hornby’s novel: in a complicated world of subjective rights and wrongs, when you know you’re not a serial killer, or a tax fraud, or a Today Tonight reporter, how do you live life as a ‘good’ person?
Katie and David are Dr and Mrs middle-class-suburbia. She is a GP; he, a newspaper columnist. They have two children and live in a nice house, in a nice neighbourhood. They have “dinners at weekends with other couples with children, couples who live within roughly the same income bracket and postal district …”. They’ve been together for 24 years and although the passion in the relationship has waned there is nothing terribly wrong with their lives.
Nothing, that is, until Katie reveals to David that she’s been having an affair. She was driven to it, she feels, because of David’s relentless anger. He is not a violent man, just one who “makes a living out of being aggrieved” , writing his expose-style column in which he rants about the frustrating slowness of pensioners and the carelessness of dog owners in playgrounds, and plodding along at an unfinished novel about the conspiracy of the ‘nanny state’. Katie became a doctor because she wanted to ‘do good’ in the world; whereas David, these days, rarely sees the good in anything. David has been a loving husband and father, but his worldview has worn Katie down.
The affair is opportunistic and half-hearted; she is not in love with this new man, Stephen. But the affair sets in motion an analysis of whether one can still be a good person if one is engaging is such indiscretions. The affair, what’s more, is being facilitated by her Health Authority travel budget – a tax-payer funded affair, if you like, conducted by two trustworthy, hard working, conference-attending, otherwise ‘good’ people.
Meanwhile, David is angrier than he’s ever been, but his reaction is something Katie – who feels she can anticipate his every move – could never have predicted. With the help of a dubious new age guru named DJ GoodNews, who cures David and Katie’s daughter, Molly, of long term eczema with the power of his healing hands, the self-styled “Angriest man in Holloway” becomes a philanthropist. This new and improved David is everything Katie thought she wanted him to be: open, loving, communicative. Unfortunately, he also now wishes to give away most of their belongings and take street kids into their home. As GoodNews infiltrates their comfy lives with his quotable quotes about spirituality and being your very best you, Katie finds herself in the role of the sneering cynic.
Hornby’s far-fetched domestic scenario asks us to question the stories we tell ourselves – in the context of first world problems – about goodness. Does one need to be religious (or at least, spiritual) to be good? Does one need to be faithful to be good? Does one need to be philanthropic to be good? And if one does all these things but still pinches office stationery or neglects their recycling, is one still a good person? There’s no real answer to this question of course, and there’s nothing new in making the point that our moral universes are self-determined and fluctuating, but I really enjoy the way Hornby extrapolates the concept. He is a skilful writer of dialogue, in particular, and, whether spiteful or tender, David and Katie’s interactions are cleverly underwritten by years of knowing everything about each other. In addition to the bigger picture morality tale, their relationship questions how much we can, or should, change the people around us to suit ourselves and whether striving for individual happiness is necessarily selfish. Hornby writes with generous wit, very clever turns of phrase and a great deal of pathos – even in this change-of-pace novel which is in many ways a sort of allegory, rather than another example of the contemporary realist style he is best known for in work like About a Boy and High Fidelity.
There are some of us who will get the opportunity to help build a well in the Third World, but most of us are just getting through the day hoping the bills get paid and our kids don’t humiliate us at the supermarket. How to be Good doesn’t offer any solutions, and it probably ties up its loose ends a little too neatly for a book asking such big questions, but it does encourage us to think about how we conduct ourselves in our own little microcosm and how to be a little less judgemental about the ways in which other people are navigating their own journeys.
*I made this example up. If you want to go hunting for mistakes, you’ll have to find your own proof copy.