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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2012

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2012

Nick Hornby
11 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Stumbling on Happiness—Daniel Gilbert
  • Prunella: The Authorized Biography of Prunella Scales—Teresa Ransom
  • The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens—Jenny Hartley, ed.
  • Joan’s Book—Joan Littlewood
  • The Submission—Amy Waldman
  • Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be: The Lionel Bart Story—David and Caroline Stafford

BOOKS READ:

  • Imagine: How Creativity Works—Jonah Lehrer
  • Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be: The Lionel Bart Story—David and Caroline Stafford
  • Beautiful Ruins—Jess Walter
  • Citizen Vince—Jess Walter
  • Ready Player One—Ernest Cline

I am a creative professional. The temptation to qualify that sentence with an “I suppose” or a “for want of a better description” or an “on a good day” or a “whatever you might think” or just a simple “not” is almost overwhelming; it feels as though I just began a column with the sentence “I am very good at sex.” Actually, it’s even worse than that. I am likely to have sex with only a very small minority of you, for various reasons that we don’t need to go into here, some of them surprising, so word is unlikely to spread. But you can all buy or borrow a book or a movie or even an album I’ve written, and make up your own minds about my creativity. One of the many admirable things about Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine is that he does not argue that to be creative is the same thing as to be special, or clever, or gifted, and that’s what sounds uncomfortable about that opening sentence: I seem to be saying something more than “I make stuff up, and someone shells out for it.” I’m not, though. Honestly.

The first half of Imagine is about what happens in our brains when we make stuff up, and it’s riveting, especially, perhaps, if that’s what you’re paid to do. The frequent appearance in this column of biographies, typically biographies of artists, can be explained by my enduring interest in this very subject. The main reason I pick up those books in the first place is because I want to know how Preston Sturges or Richard Yates or Lucille Ball or, most recently, Charles Dickens did what they did; I want to know what it felt like to be them. Well, Lehrer’s subject is the mother ship. This is the literary biography that bypasses the details of advances and failed marriages, leaves out the names, even, and attempts to deal with the literal source of all creativity. There are many reasons why Dickens became Dickens, but none of them would have counted for anything had it not been for the alpha waves emanating from the right side of his brain, the part of us that enables insight and epiphany, working in conjunction with his prefrontal cortex, where his (admittedly prodigious) working memory was kept. Coffee and alcohol might have helped, and his legendarily long walks played a part, too. Dickens wouldn’t have known about amphetamines, which were first created in Germany in 1887, seventeen years after his death—is there nothing this column doesn’t know? But if he had, he’d have shoveled them in like M&M’s, which, incidentally, weren’t actually patented until 1941. (OK, I’ll stop now. It’s not even actual knowledge I’m dispensing. It’s bits of Wikipedia.) It also helped, Lehrer explains, that he traveled and lived in a city, and that he had to battle with constraints of form, in his case imposed by the monthly serialization of most of his books.

Most of us sense, vaguely, that a walk will clear our heads, that drugs and coffee might help us to concentrate, that we find it easier to create if some kind of boundary is placed around our imagination. When a teacher asks for a story about anything at all, then the student will struggle; tell a kid that you want a story about a talking sponge who wants to take part in the Olympics and you’ll get something pretty cool. What’s enthralling about Lehrer’s book is that he has neuroscientific explanations for why our habits and dependencies work. Speed, for example, increases the amount of dopamine in the synapses, and this helps us to pay attention: suddenly everything seems interesting. This means it’s an editing drug rather than a creative drug, because we suddenly find we’re getting pleasure from, say, messing about with the rhythm of a single sentence. In one of the most thrilling parts of this book, Lehrer compares the taut, spare, simple (and brilliant) poetry Auden wrote while using Benzedrine with the long “vomit”—Dylan’s word—of “Like a Rolling Stone,” an epiphanic right-hemisphere production if ever there was one.

The breadth of reference in Imagine is a joy in itself: Auden and Dylan, Milton Glaser, Yo-Yo Ma, John Lasseter, Clay Marzo, and Arthur Fry, who came up with the Post-it note. But the real stars of the book are the scientific researchers. It turns out that there is no area of creativity that someone hasn’t devised a test for. Brian Uzzi, for example, wanted to test the optimum conditions for group creativity, so he chose the Broadway musical as his ideal model, and produced a study of every musical staged between 1877 and 1990. He used reviews and box office as his indicators of success, and came up with a measure, Q, to quantify the density of the connections between the major collaborators, the director, producer, composer, librettist, and so on. How often had the people behind a production worked with each other before? How often did they admit new people into their working circle? And what he found was that you needed a medium Q score for a successful show. A flop was more likely with either a high or a low Q—a high Q possibly indicating staleness and a refusal to find room for fresh ideas and voices, and a low Q suggesting inexperience and unfamiliarity with the creative processes of colleagues. The conclusions are interesting, of course, but the fun comes when you attempt to imagine Brian Uzzi’s working life, which for the last part involved poring over 1930s theater programs. Charles Limb at Johns Hopkins found a way to scan the brains of jazz pianists while they were improvising. Earl Miller has taught monkeys to press buttons when a picture of randomly scattered dots on a screen looks a little bit like another picture of random dots. Jonathan Schooler evaluated daydreaming by making subjects read one of the less-gripping passages from War and Peace after a slug of vodka. (And there we have it: the true value of literature. The stupor it induces results in creative thinking.) Joe Forgas at the University of New South Wales hid plastic animals and toy soldiers near the checkout counter of a stationery store on rainy days and made the shop play sad music, in order to collect data on whether people noticed more when they were depressed. (They did—four times as much.) These people, the Uzzis and the Schoolers and the Limbs, are all ingenious, charming, and almost certainly insane.

I’m happy that I do the job I do, but my bad days irritate the hell out of me—the hours spent playing (currently) Jelly Defense, the despair, the occasional petulant act of self-sabotage. What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about Imagine is that it turns out I’m doing more or less everything right. These aren’t avoidable professional hazards at all, but tools of the trade, at least as essential as a computer. Oh, and 80 percent of writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop interviewed by a neuroscientist in the early 1980s were properly, formally depressed. Who’d have thought the figure would be as low as that? The depressometer I invented and affixed to the underside of my desk never dips below three digits. I can’t imagine that there are many readers of this magazine who won’t want to quote great chunks of Imagine to a significant other, if only to excuse and explain recent awful behavior.

It would have been interesting to think about David and Caroline Stafford’s biography of Lionel Bart, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be, in the illuminating light cast by Jonah Lehrer’s book. Regular readers, however, will already know that if there is an uninteresting way to think about something, this column will find it, and so I read the two books the other way round. There is an awful lot in the Staffords’ book that is relevant to the work of both Jonah Lehrer and Brian Uzzi, however: Bart popped out a couple of moderately successful musicals before writing, with apparently vomitical speed and necessity, the astonishingly successful Oliver! in 1960, when he was thirty years old. Uzzi would have fun Q-crunching; Bart worked with the same people, mostly associated with the Theatre Royal Stratford East run by the extraordinary Joan Littlewood. Lehrer, meanwhile, would understand the apparent effortlessness of the show’s appearance from thin air, its relationship to Bart’s tough East End Jewish upbringing, and his eventually ruinous drug use. It’s all pretty much downhill after Oliver!, though. Twang!!—and there is almost certainly a piece of research being conducted on the inverse relationship between exclamation marks and commercial success even as we speak—remains one of the most famous theatrical disasters of the twentieth century. Its calamitous failure destroyed Bart, not least because he invested past, present, and future earnings from Oliver! in it, despite all wise advice to the contrary. Any biography of a minor cultural figure stands or falls on the quality of its supporting roles, and Bart “cast up,” as film people say—filled his life with just about anyone who was alive and talented and interesting in the 1960s. He knew Judy Garland and Noël Coward, the Beatles and the Stones. Michael Caine, Lucien Freud, Cassius Clay. But it was Joan Littlewood, who directed his first hit, the eponymous Fings…, whom I wanted to know more about, hence the appearance of her autobiography in the “Books Bought” list above. A similar, now entirely incomprehensible fascination with Ronald Reagan once led me to buy a book about his years working for General Electric. That book is on the shelves above my bed, so I am reminded of the brevity and idiocy of my enthusiasms every night of the week. I’m sure Joan will go the same way, but look at this:

Joan Littlewood ran away to Paris, arriving just in time to enjoy the street riots of 1934, which left 15 dead… London, when she returned, seemed lacklustre, so she decided to go to America. With £9 to her name, fares were a sticking-point, but a few shillings could be saved if she walked to Liverpool, so she did just that…In Manchester, the BBC came to her rescue with an invitation to give a talk about being a lady tramp. There she met a man called Jimmy Miller. They married. Jimmy later changed his name to Ewan MacColl, and wrote “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

And this is all before she began the career for which she became famous, her revolutionary theater work in a disused theater she rented, cleaned up, and fitted herself, where she directed and produced Oh! What a Lovely War, and plays by Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney. (Is this all a bit too British? Well, tough. She was a big deal here.)

I am now convinced that every nonfiction book contains one weird fact which you want to put in your pocket and pull out to show friends at every available opportunity. Last year I learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald used to stand on his balcony watching Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz fight; now I learn that Bart’s father may well have been in an internment camp on the Isle of Man with a cranky old geezer who made everyone do the fitness exercises he’d invented, a chap called Joseph Hubertus Pilates. I’d always presumed Pilates was an obscure offshoot of Greek science.

Jess Walter, one of my favorite contemporary American novelists, has written a novel in which you half expect Lionel Bart to turn up at any second. Oliver! was written in 1959, in a fishing village in Spain; chunks of Beautiful Ruins are set in a fishing village in Italy three years later, and its characters include Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who would almost certainly have met Bart, maybe even attended one of his scary-sounding showbiz parties. I don’t think I’m going to tell you what Burton is doing in this book, apart from filming Cleopatra; all you need to know is that Beautiful Ruins is a novel unlike any other you’re likely to read this year. It jumps between the Italian village and contemporary Hollywood, and there’s a long, sad love story in it that reminded me a little bit of Love in the Time of Cholera, and it’s full of stories, in lots of different forms—pitches for movies, extracts from plays, chunks of fictional memoirs. And just when you’re beginning to doubt whether Walter can pull it all together, he hits you with a sucker punch, a long, delirious ending that ties up all the strands while managing to say something about the beauty and brevity of our time on this planet. And if there’s nothing in there that you find interesting, then there won’t be much else for you in the rest of this magazine. Ever. I re-read Walter’s Citizen Vince this month, too, for Professional Purposes, and was reminded not only of what a great book it is, funny, clever, and beautifully plotted, but of what a surprising writer Walter is: his last four novels really bear no resemblance to each other, except in their freshness and originality.

Ready Player One is set in a depressing, brilliantly imagined dystopic future, and though neither Lionel Bart nor Richard Burton would crop up in it, it’s absolutely stuffed full of pop-culture references, all of them taken from ’80s movies and music. Whenever I have tried to read science fiction before, I have become quite suicidally depressed by my own incomprehension, but I am proud to say that I understood every single word of Ernest Cline’s book, and if his publishers want to use that as a blurb, they’re welcome. Ready Player One is set in 2044. The world’s resources have more or less run out, and Wade Watts, the book’s teenage narrator, lives in a trailer park in which trailer has been piled upon trailer to form a teetering tower-block. Watts spends his time, like an awful lot of other people, living virtually. He goes to virtual school, and when he has the virtual money to travel, visits other virtual planets. I am going to stop using the word virtual now, but don’t forget it, because it’s needed to make sense of all other sentences from now on.

The deceased founder of the world (not, like, the actual world), James Halliday, richer than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates combined, has left his entire fortune to anyone who can solve the impossibly labyrinthine puzzle he has set, a puzzle entirely reliant on an obsessive familiarity with John Hughes movies and Rush concept albums, the stuff that Halliday loved in his youth. Years pass, and most people have given up; then Watts gets a break that gives him a shot at winning the money. The clues and tasks, increasingly more inventive and more difficult, are strewn all over the universe. (Not, you know…) Ready Player One is like a computer game, fun and addictive; however, it has the disadvantage of not making you feel sick with self-loathing. Now I have finished it, I will go back to playing Jelly Defense on my iPad, which will do the trick. As Jonah Lehrer will tell you, I have no chance of creating a masterpiece to rival Great Expectations without it. All these books are wasting my time. 

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