In a very funny scene in Nick Hornby's new novel, Juliet, Naked, Annie makes a list of novels for a man she's met online. The two have been e-mailing about music, art, and books, having conversations that are part showing off, part giddy excitement over finding someone who feels the same way you do about art and culture. After agonizing over her choices, Annie suffers a fit of nerves. One book seems too obvious, another possibly insensitive, a third might suggest she's a lesbian, "when in fact the whole idea was that she was trying to indicate the opposite." Minutes before their first meeting, she stuffs the stack of novels in the trash.
Hornby, who's been literature's unofficial expert on neurotic list making since 1995's High Fidelity, wrote the scene for laughs, but he also believes that Annie's anxieties are the crux of the novel, his sixth. "That scene contains the most rewritten paragraphs in the whole book," he says. "It shows what kind of person she is, how much she's trying to impress him. All our cultural neuroses are bundled into that scene."
In two new works—Juliet, Naked, and the screenplay for the film An Education, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber—Hornby examines the ways culture can deceive and betray its consumers. In our desperation to appear sophisticated, we may confuse having good taste (whatever that means) with being a good person. If you've ever judged a fellow subway rider by the cover of his paperback, or been reluctant to share your iPod for fear that your playlist will make you look like a loser, consider yourself guilty.
In An Education, equating taste with morality has dangerous consequences. The movie follows Jenny, a precocious 16-year-old in 1960s Britain whose hunger for cultural validation makes her vulnerable to the advances of David, a man 20 years her elder who picks her up by complimenting her cello. David's fluency in classical music, French singers, and pre-Raphaelite art blinds Jenny to his more dubious qualities (such as how he steals antiques for a living). "Jenny's journey is getting to a place where she can respond to culture on her own terms," not based on what she thinks is highbrow, Hornby says. For him, the journey has been the opposite: overcoming his aversion to what he terms "snooty culture." To wit: he's reading a book on portraiture. "I've never had a use for the old masters, but I'm learning to have a taste for them," he says. We can guess his next list: Top Five Da Vincis of All Time.