Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nick Hornby's newest book, Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius is a compelling examination of two seemingly disparate figures of pop culture - icons whose lives share more similarities than one might assume at first glance. I should preface this review by stating that I would NOT have read Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius if it had been written by anyone other than Nick Hornby. While I appreciate and admire Charles Dickens, I've only read a handful of his many, many novels. As for Prince... well, let's just say that I haven't spent much time engrossed in the catalog of his many, many recordings. So, while I respect Boz and the Purple One, I wouldn't pick up a biography on either artist - let alone one that compares the two figures. However, since I am a super-fan of Nick Hornby, I thought that I would give this unique book (about an even more unique pairing) a shot. And I am sooooooo glad that I did.
Hornby has a daunting task ahead of him: he attempts to raise Dickens from the soggy soil of musty English classrooms, while simultaneously trying to lasso Prince from the starry stratosphere. Somehow, Hornby succeeds in both endeavors, proving himself to be a talented artist in his own right. In his usual earnest, humorous, and self-deprecating fashion, Hornby plunges into the histories and masterpieces of these two inimitable artists - and the author's enthusiasm is absolutely contagious. Even readers with only a casual, passing interest in Dickens and/or Prince will find something to enjoy in A Particular Kind of Genius: both of Hornby's titular subjects led intriguing, heartbreaking, and (ultimately) inspiring lives, with triumphs, tragedies, and setbacks galore. Throughout his treatise, Hornby does everything in his power to celebrate the artistry of these two fascinating figures, organizing his book around central themes (including "childhood," "the movies," and "death"). At times, the book comes across as the most casual, conversational history textbook you've ever encountered; at others, Hornby uses his topics as springboards for more profound discussions about the nature of humanity and art.
Well-researched and eloquently crafted, A Particular Kind of Genius covers everything from The Pickwick Papers to Purple Rain, and treats A Tale of Two Cities and Sign o' the Times (as well more obscure titles from the back catalogue of each artist) with the same reverential respect. While this might sound like a tedious undertaking, Hornby's enthusiasm washes away any cynicism with a deluge of (purple) rain. Though I have a strong aversion to 80's music and stuffy British literature, I appreciate Hornby's honesty about the good, the bad, and the ugly creations of his two subjects. At one point, Hornby describes the 1980s as "the decade that taste forgot" - and that admission alone establishes his ethos and credibility (in my humble opinion, at least).
In the same way that Dickinson, Apple TV's hip genre-bending series, humanizes Emily Dickinson , so, too, does Nick Hornby elevate the status of his two subjects. Sparing no gory (or sexy) detail, Hornby's examination is everything that a music-obsessed English teacher (like yours truly) adores. And, while both the prodigious Prince and dutiful Dickens have celebrated, monumental back catalogues of material, it's Hornby's writing that steals the show this time. In the end, it's the author's enthusiasm that leaves readers feeling inspired - as if his readers can create their own future masterpieces. After all, if Hornby can make the author of Great Expectations and the singer-songwriter behind Purple Rain into relatable figures, anything is possible.
View all my reviews
Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.