Wednesday, November 28

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby

Toward the end of 2003, Hornby was commissioned to write a monthly column for Believer magazine about his reading, and this volume comprises two years worth of contributions. An otherwise extremely liberal and catholic publication, the Believer has one overarching editorial principle, which Hornby characterises as “thou shalt not slag anyone off.” Fine in theory, but more difficult when Hornby read books he didn’t like; they’re reviewed incognito, like “Unnameable comedy thriller – Anonymous” but Hornby found the experience useful, as he began reading fewer books he didn’t like.
Each column begins with a list of books bought during the month and books read, and the writing is as much about him as it is about the literature. On occasion there’s an extract from his favourite book of the month. The process of reflection has made Hornby more aware of connections between books, spates of similar themes, and the limitations of his reading palate (though not nearly as limited as mine – though not writing about non-fiction I read for school, I’m nonetheless a little self-conscious about the vast preponderance of fiction and the relatively small range of genres I’ve covered).
This is an evil book that must be avoided if you have anything else you need to be doing – since beginning this blog a year ago I have started the (previously deplored) practice of turning over a teeny corner of pages I want to use during the review: quotes that illustrate the writing, salient plot points I want to include, amusing lines and set ups, hideous inconsistencies…
Never have I bent so many corners of a book I loved – an average of one every sixteen or so pages. Most of these are for books I now want to read, but some are because they encapsulate the kind of writing I would like these reviews to be. Hornby’s writing is funny, reflective, deft, literate and modest. And addictive – I spent most of this morning telling myself I’d only read this column, then move on, only to promise myself just one more, until the entire book was read.
He has a similar attitude to me about literary pretension, and about literature (though he reads swathes more of it, and as a result I now want to read Chekov and Dickens, among others), and I so identified with some of his observations that I felt as though I was reading what I’d produce if only I were better (and older, married, a parent, masculine, British and an author).
For example, when he read Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books, he discovered the following: “the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for me.”
Hornby’s response? “That’s me! And you, probably! That’s us! ’Thousands of unread books!’ ‘Truly cultured!’” Where he surpasses my response is that this then prompts him to not only reflect of what causes him to buy books that he known he’ll almost certainly never read but to then articulate this beautiful idea:
“But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”
I’ll be keeping The Complete Polysyllabic Spree in my reference section so that, after I read any of his recommendations, I can see if I think what he thought. Watch for Hornby quotes in the coming months. And buy this book. – Alex

NB For another take on book lists (in this case 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall), read this New York Times review, by William Grimes

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