Collection of essays highlights Hornby's love of reading, flair for writing
The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Mans Struggle With the Monthly Tide of the Books Hes Bought and the Books Hes Been Meaning to Read, By Nick Hornby, Believer Books 230 pp., $14
If you love to read, or like to read, or you're in that vast category of those wishing for more time to read, here is a book that will have you saying "yes" and "so true," or just have you smiling in knowing amusement at most pages. "The Polysyllabic Spree," (yes, it's a takeoff on "The Polyphonic Spree") is a collection of English writer Nick Hornby's recent "Stuff I've Been Reading" monthly columns for The Believer magazine, whose stated mission is to be an "amiable yet rigorous forum for writing about books."
Fans of Hornby know him for books such as "About a Boy" and "High Fidelity" (and movies of the same names). Fans also know that being persistently amiable is not his style. Which, of course, makes his writing very entertaining.
This is not a collection of book reviews, but a reading diary of sharp and thoughtful musings on literature that ultimately asks: Why do we read, anyway?
Like many of us, Hornby buys a lot more books than he reads. The reasons are not mysterious. He's got a job, three kids, and a love of (English) football. He watches TV to unwind. In his first essay, he sets an unapologetic tone by dismissing any potential complaints that he spends too much on books. "I know that already," he says. "I certainly 'intend' to read all of them, more or less. My 'intentions' are good. Anyway, it's my money. And I'll bet you do it, too."
Er, how did you know?
But buying books is half the fun. For anyone who's ever browsed around a bookstore, reading Hornby's accounts of how one book led him to another, or how he discovered a new author nearly by accident, is like reconnecting with an erudite friend.
Each essay is bannered by two lists: "Books Bought" and "Books Read." This gives the ensuing essay a personality before you start it. The "Books Read" list also includes notations of which ones are unfinished and which ones have been abandoned.
One book Hornby couldn't make himself finish was Bob Woodward's "Bush at War." Hornby only read about a third of it before grumbling that "Woodward's tone was too matey and sympathetic for me." One passage did surprise him. He's amazed that the Secret Service needed to wake up President Bush at 11:08 on the night of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Woken up! He didn't work late that night? And he wasn't too buzzy to get off to sleep?"
Hornby reads all kinds of books -- from Robert Lowell's poems to Dennis Lehane's novels to helpful books on quitting smoking (which he's read again and again). Of Lehane's multilayered novels, Hornby admiringly writes "everything seems organic . . . almost nothing . . . seems contrived." These are the kinds of books that Hornby searches for, those that will make you "walk into a lamp-post" while reading them.
But reading widely doesn't mean you've read everything. Hornby takes to task those literary critics who give away plots of classics in their essays, under the assumption that everyone has already read them ("I know the only thing brainy people do with their lives is reread great works of fiction, but surely even . . . Harold Bloom read before [he] reread.")
Hornby has other frustrations, all voiced with droll acuity, all stemming from the love of the well-written word. He can dispatch a scholarly trend with a few short strokes. Take the current "obsession with austerity" in universities and writing workshops, designed to pare all writing down to bare bone.
"Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there's nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it's such a [cushy] thing to do in the first place."
Not one to diagnose without offering a cure, Hornby has a useful antidote for another bookish dilemma: all the Really Big Biographies that frequently burden the bestseller lists. Under Hornby's rules, before writing a biography, you would apply to the "National Biography Office" for a permit that spells out "the number of pages you get." A biography would only edge toward a thousand pages for someone of Dickens's stature. In this framework, most current biographies would be about 200-300 pages shorter than the length at which they're published.
This would also spare many of us the guilt of avoiding books we can't pick up with one hand.
Chekhov's "A Life in Letters" is excerpted at the end of the book. The letters resonate as strongly today as they did when the great man wrote them. As Hornby says, "useful advice -- and tough love." Some of the same could be said for Hornby's writing and his love of books.