I can tell you the exact day and pretty close to the hour when I first read Nick Hornby. I was attending the annual English community celebration here in these parts of Quebec, something called Townshippers’ Day. It was September 16, 2000, probably around 1:30 p.m. in the tiny village of St-Felix-de-Kingsey. And it was snowing. Not real snow, just the kind of early autumn unpleasantness that makes people put on brave faces and duck inside at the earliest convenience.
I was a ducker. I took shelter in the local Catholic church, which, like most small Quebec villages, was at the heart of town. A women’s world-music choir was set to perform for other snow-duckers, and I was early. So I pulled out the paperback copy of High Fidelity that I had just purchased from a table of used books up in the parking lot.
It would be too easy and altogether wrong to call it a religious experience right there in that church — and, honestly, it’s just Nick Hornby — but I remember starting the book and being instantly delighted by the characters and their obsessions with music, women and optional maturity. I was smitten with Hornby and his compassionate humour there and then and since. I’ve often told people, if I could be any writer, I would choose to be Nick Hornby.
But this isn’t about Hornby.
Several weeks ago, I mentioned to a friend of mine my longstanding Hornby love (which sounds like a mistake and I regret typing it immediately). Knowing how much I like Hornby and how I was looking forward to reading his latest novel Funny Girl, last week this friend stood in line at a Hornby reading in New York, purchased a copy and had the author sign it “For Ross in Canada, Best Wishes, Nick Hornby.” The book arrived in the mail today, and I ripped open the packaging like a giddy school girl — if giddy school girls had literary crushes on bald British football fans turned novelists, which sounds even worse than “Hornby love.”
I probably would have purchased the book — ah, who am I kidding? I’m cheap; I would have borrowed it from the library. So it wasn’t like I was never going to get my hands on the thing. But this one is autographed. It’s signed by the author! And that makes it…
What does it make it?
Really, what makes an autographed book special? Will it increase my reading pleasure? Has some kind of magical transference taken place that wasn’t already there in the, oh I dunno, months and months of writing that produced it? Is it like I now know the author a bit better?
Of course not. I don’t know Nick Hornby and he doesn’t know me. He merely signed his name. While I’m sure he is truly sincere in his best wishes, he probably would have written “Ross: Get bent” if that’s what my friend had asked him to sign.
The signature doesn’t make a relationship. But a signed book creates a connection, however slight, and any connection in this world is not to be dismissed.
But this isn’t about the autograph.
I mentioned that a friend sent me the book. What’s remarkable is that I have never met this friend. He’s a blogger friend, Mark at Exile on Pain Street. I didn’t ask him to do it. He just did it.
You’ll notice I qualified it: “blogger friend,” which is this close, some believe, to saying “imaginary friend.” I’ve never met Mark. I’ve never met Ned either, although I traded a tin of Quebec maple syrup for a copy of his book. Nor have I met Bill, though we correspond regularly and he sends me music playlists and last month convinced me that, hey, reading Infinite Jest together would be swell, which makes him the kind of convincing friend who in real life would be a lot of fun to be around as long as you’re not so fussy about having a police record.
Some people would say these are not friendships because we don’t interact on the same physical plane. All we know of each other is through carefully crafted texts and comments, as superficial as a signature.
True, I don’t even know these people, and unlike my in-the-flesh friends, they’ll never hear me weasel out of a dinner invitation or ask to borrow their pickup (again). But a connection has been made, and any connection in this world is not to be dismissed. We chat, we kibitz, we pep talk, we send each other stuff in the mail, we share interests, we crack wise, we get deep when we need to and then shrug it off in a manly way, we say heartfelt things like this that we would never dare say face-to-face. They are books that they have personally autographed.
I think Hornby knows what I’m talking about.
For more on Internet relationships, read http://kingofstates.com/2015/02/06/the-internet-its-made-of-people/