review: high fidelity

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)

An intriguing fun fact: High Fidelity is a first novel.  I read Juliet, Naked last year and thought it was okay but not great, and got about halfway through A Long Way Down before putting it down and never picking it back up.  I have wanted to love a Nick Hornby novel, and finally High Fidelity has filled that particular (strange?) bibliophilic desire.  I loved this novel.  Loved it.  The question I asked myself after finishing it was why had it taken me so long to read it?

The story is told through the first-person narrative of Rob Fleming, a 35-year-old bachelor who has just broken up with longtime girlfriend, Laura.  The first part of the novel, the “THEN” part, reads like a kind of prologue, in which Rob lists his top five breakups.  This part imagines Laura as the intended reader or as though he’s speaking directly to her.  Rob is emphatic in his declaration that Laura doesn’t make this list, but methinks the man doth protest too much.  Chapter One then begins the “NOW” section of the novel, and one of the interesting things about it is that it is written in present tense.  It’s like we’re in Rob’s head, hearing his thoughts and listening in on his conversations as they happen.  The memories of his top five breakups drive Rob into sustained self-reflection as he tries to work out why those relationships didn’t work out, even as he is trying to make sense of his relationship with Laura.

Rob also owns a record store (yes, actual records) called Championship Vinyl.  Even as he is thinking about his past, his present, and his future in terms of romantic relationships, he is also reflecting on where he is professionally.  His store is on the edge of failing, and he’s not sure that he wants to save it.  He feels that his professional life is a failed relationship and uninterrupted inertia.  Rob is drifting through life but going nowhere, and yet at the same time he’s stuck in place, unable to move forward or let go of the past.  Although he loves music, he continues to ask himself if listening to pop music makes him miserable, or if he’s miserable because he listens to pop music.  He meditates on the power of film, music, and fiction to shape our identities and expectations, and he recognizes, too, that such creative arts provide individuals with a way of expressing emotions that they can’t otherwise put into words.  Rob’s incessant penchant for making top 5 lists is driven by his inability to express himself in any other way.

I taught this novel in one of my literature courses, and I suggested to my students that one of the primary themes of the novel is letting go.  This to me is one of the main sources of tension in the novel.  Rob has held onto these breakups and allowed them to define him and his point of view, but ultimately he has to let go of the regret, the pain, and the misunderstandings because if he doesn’t, he’ll never be able to move forward and have a successful relationship.  I also don’t think that Rob’s age is a coincidence.  He’s definitely having a mid-life crisis, but what gives the narrative so much power and force is that it’s painfully, unflinchingly honest.  Rob isn’t one of those self-deluding, unreliable narrators.  He doesn’t censor himself out of some fear of discovering something within or about himself that he doesn’t want to face.  The narration is wildly funny at times and I laughed aloud on numerous occasions to the point that my eyes started watering, but at the same time I felt myself identifying with his uncertainty and disillusionment.  One of my students said that Rob is lost, and I totally agree, and the narrative is that much more affecting because I know exactly how that feels.  Rob is like so many of us who is just trying to figure out how he got where he is and where does he go now? Where does he belong and will there be an end to the loneliness he feels or will he finally find love, happiness and a lasting relationship.  There’s nothing particularly special about Rob but I was completely invested in his story and how it was all going to end.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression.  Rob is far from perfect.  He’s misogynistic, selfish, self-absorbed and egotistical.  He’s that person in your life who thinks his taste in music is superior to yours.  He’s a flawed character, and there’s no getting around it.  But…but in spite of his flaws I liked him and wanted him to finally figure it all out and make the “right” choices so that he might be able to have the happiness he wants so much.  Would I want to date Rob Fleming? Probably not. Do I see a lot of him in myself? Absolutely.  This is good and bad, but in the end it makes him a realistic and completely believable character.

Is it okay if I repeat that I loved this book? I loved this book, and I wonder if part of this is because I’m close to Rob’s age and closely identified with his character.  It’s my opinion that the effect a book has on us is sometimes dependent upon where we are in our lives when we read them.  I’m not sure that my reaction to this book would have been the same if I had read it five years ago, much less ten years ago, and so maybe it’s okay that I’m just now reading it for the first time.  Still, I highly recommend this book.  It’s a wonderful first novel that has a lot of energy, humor, and hope.  High Fidelity is definitely on my top five list of favorite reads of 2012.

summer cleaning

Have you ever tried to clean out your life?  What do you keep? What do you leave behind? How do you decide what to hold onto and what to let go of?

Just before I sat down to write this post, I was shredding some old documents.  One of my tasks this summer has been to finally, FINALLY, go through the last remaining piles of paper I have had lying around since my move last summer.  You know how it is when you’re packing and moving—some stuff you just don’t have time to go through and so you throw it in a box, and you tell yourself that you’ll deal with it when you get to your new place.  It’s taken me a year, but I have at last gotten around to completing this task.  While shredding and sorting this morning, it occurred to me that what the shredding and the sorting of these piles of paper really represent is my continuing attempt to clean out my life.

Cleaning out your life.  What does that even mean?  I think the first time I put this process into words that held any meaning for me was at the start of my final year in graduate school.  I was teaching, writing my dissertation, searching for jobs, and looking ahead to the end of the school year when I would likely have to pack up my life and move it elsewhere.  I wanted to get a head start on that process, but it occurred to me that it wasn’t just physical things like papers, books, old clothes, broken shoes, and all the other ephemera and stuff that we accumulate in this business of life that I needed to sort through and choose what to keep and what to give away.  I also had intangible things cluttering my life—doubts, insecurities, fears, anxieties.  I had also gained a lot of weight over the course of my doctoral program and I wanted to take steps to lose those pounds.  Perhaps even more detrimental, I realized that I had a couple of toxic relationships in my life that I needed to let go of and put behind me.  It took some time, but I slowly became aware of a desire to clean out my life—to get rid of everything that was keeping me from being the person that I wanted to be, even if who I wanted to be wasn’t exactly clear to me.  What I did know was that who I was at that time in my life was not the person I wanted to be.

That light bulb moment was almost two years ago, and since then I have worked steadily to cleanse my life of so many material and immaterial things that I no longer want, need, or aren’t spiritually, emotionally, or physically good for me.  These lingering piles of paper remind me that there is still progress to be made and work to be done because the truth is that two years later, I am still not the person I want to be.  Writing this post has resulted in an important revelation:  I’m still a work-in-progress, and I’m still evolving into the person that I want to be.  This is okay, but this revelation can’t be a stopping point.  I have to keep changing and evolving and striving.

A few years ago, someone posed the following question to me:  what is the theme song for your life?  My response was fairly immediate: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2.  In the years that have passed, my theme song hasn’t changed, and admitting that is somewhat disheartening.  It’s that understanding that has inspired me to try to make sense of various things going on in my life.  Enter these Thursday contemplations.   The lesson and take-away from today’s contemplations: that change—lasting change—is hard, sometimes painful, but necessary.  Also, I need to really accept the fact that it’s time to make some difficult decisions. The wait-and-see approach I have adopted in the last couple of years is no longer viable.  If I want the theme song for my life to change, I need to make it change.

a year and two weeks without cable

It’s been a year and two weeks since I stopped handing over $90 a month to my local cable provider.  When I told my brother that I was going to not have cable at home, he looked at me as though I had three heads and was challenging the proper order of the world.  The question (indeed the proverbial question to so many decisions I make) was of course “Why would you do that?”.  This was followed by another question that at the time I really didn’t have the answer to:  How will you watch sports?

The decision to not have cable had been brewing in my mind for a long time.  January 2010 to May 2011 was a really intense time in my life.  I was writing a dissertation, teaching classes, and looking for a job.  I didn’t have a lot of time to sit on the couch and channel surf, and when I did, I felt guilty and bad about it because I knew I was supposed to be (needed to be) doing something else.  By the time June 2011 rolled around, the number of television shows that I actually watched when they aired was small, and I had discovered that I could do without the rest or wait until that golden era that I assumed would be my post-dissertation life.  I was also moving to a new city, and so the timing was ideal.  I should point out here that with my cable subscription, I didn’t also have some kind of DVR service, and that $90/month I mentioned above?  Yes, that was just for cable.  It didn’t include internet service or phone service or any other fun add-ons.  Just cable.  It didn’t even include premium channels like HBO and Showtime.  Yes, I know, $90.  Entirely too much on the salary of a graduate student.  But, perhaps I digress…

In the last year and two weeks I haven’t had cable at home.  I didn’t fit out my TV so that I could use an antenna and still get the basic broadcast channels like NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS.  When I say I don’t have cable, I mean I don’t have the capability of watching live television on my television.  I kept my TV, but I can’t even remember the last time I turned it on. It’s not even plugged in and hasn’t been for months—I’m energy-conscious! However, not having cable doesn’t mean that I don’t watch or consume my favorite television shows.  I just watch and consume them in different ways.  This will likely come up in future blog posts so let me just lay it out there right now.  My favorite (currently airing) television shows?  The ones I must see the minute a new episode is available?  Here they are, and this is in no specific order: Castle, The Vampire Diaries, Fringe, Sherlock, Doctor Who.  Yes, it’s a short list.  Certainly not enough to justify $90/month.  I’m not going to lie—in this last year, I bought the season passes for all of these shows, and you know what? I still came out ahead of what I would have paid with cable.  So yes, this decision has actually saved me money.  I get other shows through Netflix (right now I’m watching Season 8 of NCIS).  I already had Netflix and so I didn’t incur any new expenses as the result of cutting cable.  I also only have the DVD option for Netflix, but don’t get me started on all the reasons why.  Basically, I now watch television in one of three ways—season passes or individual episode purchases, Netflix, or watching free online.

But what about sports?  Yes, it’s true.  I love major league baseball, the NCAA tournament, the Stanley Cup playoffs, and grand slam tennis.  Do you want to know what I have discovered about this love of mine?  It’s not as strong and lasting as I had previously thought it was.  The only sports programming that I have gone out of my way to enjoy in some fashion is the Stanley Cup playoffs.  I found a way to listen to live radio broadcasts on my computer.  Not the same as watching but still satisfying enough.  So the answer to my brother’s question of how I was going to watch sports? I don’t watch sports anymore, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m missing anything.  I have discovered in this last year that a lot of things I thought were important to me, just really aren’t important to me anymore.  Will I miss watching the 2012 Olympics?  Maybe a little, but at the same time, how much do I really care?  How does watching the Olympics (or any other sports broadcast for that matter) affect my life in a positive way? If I’m being brutally honest with myself, it doesn’t positively affect my life.  It gives me the chance to stare mindlessly at the television for a few hours, and sure, that can be relaxing, but there are lots of other ways for me to relax. Like meditating.

Not having cable—or that is, not being addicted to staring at my television screen for hours on end—has given me time to do other things that I enjoy a lot more.  Such as reading for pleasure (reading is a big part of my professional life, so for me there’s always a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for work), writing, trying out new recipes and cooking a nice meal more than one night a week.  I have no regrets about my choice.  Letting go has been one of my mantras over the last year, and letting go of cable has been liberating in a lot of ways.  Unless magic happens and my household gains another person, I can’t imagine that I will ever be a cable subscriber again.