High Fidelity for Amateur Pianists

Rob, the protagonist of High Fidelity, despises classical piano music. If he were to meet an adult student of classical piano lessons at a London pub, he might puff cigarette smoke out of the side of his mouth in dismissal. Yet High Fidelity, my May Selection of the Month, is very much about a love affair with music. To boot, this contemporary classic has side-splitting humor, memorable characters, and an intimate narrative voice in Rob.

When we first meet Rob, he is in a quagmire because Championship Vinyl, his London record store, is failing, and his girlfriend, Laura, has left him. Although Rob’s career has stalled and his personal life has tanked, he seems incapable of doing little more than swapping lists of pop albums with his two nerdy employees, Barry and Dick.

The threesome devise a lengthy questionnaire for prospective dates, intended to dispense with awkward conversation and to “prevent a chap from leaping into bed with someone who might, at a later date, turn out to have every Julio Iglesias record ever made.” It’s no good pretending, Rob insists, that any relationship has a future if the couple’s “record collections disagree violently.” Yet Rob has trouble clarifying why Laura, who apparently has abominable taste in pop music, was in many ways the love of his life.

In the midst of his escapades, Rob wishes that he had studied music in college. He remembers fondly the years he worked as a DJ in London. “To look down on a roomful of heads all bobbing away to the music you have chosen is an uplifting thing,” he reminisces, “and for that six-month period when the club was popular, I was as happy as I have ever been.”

Now Rob feels as though he has no ballast, and that if he doesn’t hang onto the paltry life he has, he might just float away. This is a life of suppressed desire, and for those of us who have endured significant stretches of time separated from music, Rob feels uncomfortably familiar.

Yet the book does not wallow. In an effort to understand why Laura has ditched him, Rob embarks on a quest to interview all five of the women who dumped him during his life, starting with petite, black-haired Alison Ashworth in middle school. This part of the book is hilarious and also gratifying, for along the way Rob gains self-awareness. “It seems to me that if you place music (and books, probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the center of your being,” he declares, then you “live life at too high a pitch,” and you struggle to feel merely content.

I found the transformation that Rob undergoes in the end—in his relationship to women and music—to be natural and yet inspiring. Without revealing the ending, I’ll share one of Rob’s epiphanies after his life begins to change. “I’ve been letting the weather and my stomach muscles and a great chord change in a Pretenders single make up my mind for me,” he admits to Laura, “and I want to do it for myself.”

High Fidelity, a New York Times notable book, is by Nick Hornby.
Perhaps Alex Ross’ advice in Listen to This that classical pianists listen to contemporary music is beginning to take hold of my imagination. Here is “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” by Solomon Burke, a favorite of the character Rob’s.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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