There was a specific point, lost to me now, when I decided that I absolutely needed to read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. I truly wish I could credit the periodical or person or television interview or whatever that caused me to purchase the novel at the earliest opportunity. Similarly, I don’t remember buying it, and barely remember reading it the first time. In a weird way, High Fidelity just resides in my head as a permanent edition, as if it had been there always. There’s a decent reason for that, and it relates directly to why Hornby fits into this series. Much as I wish I had been one of those cool teenagers who related intensely to the work of Kurt Vonnegut or read On the Road to tatters, the truth is that the first novel that spoke to me so deeply that it seemed to represent me, express something of myself that I seemed unable (or, probably more accurately, unwilling) to acknowledge was High Fidelity.
The book was first published in 1995, but the paperback edition I own arrived in the fall of 1996. I was twenty-six. Like the book’s protagonist, record store owner Rob Fleming, I had a romantic history that was both pained and yet open to fair mockery. And music was interlocked with that experience as surely as if they were the two strands of my moody DNA. As Hornby wrote, in the voice of Rob, “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?” These certainly struck me as reasonable questions. Did I salve my wounds with U2’s “All I Want is You,” or did I try to live up to the anguish heartache traced in its lyrics?
Beyond that relatability, I found to book to be genuinely funny–it remains of the rare instances in which I was roused to laughter by a novel–and admired Hornby’s ability to burrow into the thought process of his major character. Hornby manages to have Rob make choices that are both obviously terrible in the moment and yet full understandable as a route for the character to take. That continued with his next novel, the perhaps even better About a Boy, which was built around the well-traveled trope of a caddish adult becoming a better person through his unlikely friendship with a emotionally stunted yet intellectually precocious kid whose chief problem is loneliness. In effect, they help each other grow up. The skeleton of the plot may be familiar, but Hornby injects it with wit and energy. At his best, he has the vital, elusive, largely indefinable trait that every writer longs for: a distinctive voice.
Hornby has slipped away from me somewhat as I’ve found later works increasingly lacking, and his rambling essays for The Believer and other publications pendulum between messily charming and tiresome for me. But I admire the consistency of that voice, often grounded in the way pop culture simultaneously reveals and shapes an individual. Even without that, he remains forever a favorite because of the way he once wrote my autobiography (and I suspect the autobiography of many of my peers) before I was able to get around to it.