Here's a little confession: I don't read book reviews.
Okay, I used to read them, in the good old days, when I thought I could afford a subscription to Publishers' Weekly. I was down with the PW book reviews--short, and pretty much universally chipper, although every now and then someone would rip a forthcoming book up one side and down the other. But I honestly don't think I've ever made it all the way through a New York Times book review. Why not? Well, for the most part, they never really make me want to read the books. This is why, I think, I enjoy book blogs as much as I do. The less "review-y," the better--I like to hear what someone really thought of a book, even if they didn't like it.
So it is always very refreshing to read Nick Hornby's collections of book-reading essays (collected from The Believer magazine, where they originally appear). The latest such book of his is titled More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself, and I devoured it over the course of a couple of nights. Hornby opens each essay with a list of the books he bought that month, and the books he actually read, which is a lovely way to admit that what we pick out to read and what we end up reading are not always directly related. And then he proceeds to discuss what he read in approachable, and often very funny, prose. And you often learn something along the way, like this, when he talks about the book Austerity Britain: 1945-51, by David Kynaston):
"While I was reading about the birth of our* National Health Service, President Obama was winning his battle to extend health care in America;** it's salutary, then, to listen to the recollections of the doctors who treated working-class Britons in those early days. 'I certainly found when the Health Service started on the 5th July '48 that for the first six months I had as many as twenty or thirty ladies come to me who had the most unbelievable gynaecological conditions--I mean, of that twenty or thirty there would be at least ten who had complete prolapse of the womb, and they had to hold it up with a towel as if they had a large nappy on.'" (p. 25.)
I don't know what it says about me that that TOTALLY makes me want to get and read the Kynaston book, but kudos to Hornby on his quote-selecting skills. I also know this about Hornby: he's the only reviewer who has ever, EVER made me want to read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (although I know I should have read this one before now).
So: looking to get excited about a wide range of fiction and nonfiction? Try this and Hornby's other such collections, including The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Money.
*Hornby is British, so he speaks of the British National Health Service.
**I don't know that Obama's health-care plan is actually going to make health care more accessible to anyone, but that's a small quibble with Hornby's writing.