The Polysyllabic Spree

For five years between 2003 and 2008, Nick Hornby was a book blogger. Columnist! Sorry! Columnist! I said blogger because… well, as I was reading The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer magazine between September 2003 and December 2004, I felt like I was reading a particularly enjoyable blog by the rare and endangered male book-blogger.

All the elements were there: the perennial struggle between the enormous number of books coming in and the small number of books you can actually read, given that you have some semblance of a life; the books you hate but don’t want to be too negative about; the books you love so much that you want to thrust them into strangers’ hands, because everyone, everyone should read this; the snippets of personal life (Hornby’s partner had a baby son during the course of this book, which actually increased his reading time since he was awake more during the night); the entire month spent reading Dickens. What? Just me and Hornby, then?

Hornby is funny and self-aware. He knows perfectly well that you could never read all the enjoyable books published in the past six months, let alone all those that have been written since the beginning of time, and he’s not out to try. Nor is this “The Best 100 Books You’ll Ever Read.” Instead, it’s just “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” and his thoughts on it, a snapshot, a peek into his bag and onto his shelves. A blog. (Column!)

I did get a few good recommendations from this book, though not the huge list I’d assumed I’d come away with. But my favorite part, the bit I really liked, was when he talked about his reason for writing the column at all. Note that I don’t necessarily agree with what he says about Pale Fire, but his conclusions are sound. Definitely sound. (And I will certainly be looking for the next collection, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt.)

One of the reasons I wanted to write this column, I think, is that I assumed that the cultural highlight of my month would arrive in book form, and that’s true, for probably eleven months of the year. Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. “The Magic Flute” vs. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. “The Last Supper” vs. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception — “Blonde on Blonde” might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire’s chances against Citizen Kane. And every now and again you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature twenty-nine times out of thirty.

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22 Responses to The Polysyllabic Spree

  1. Tony says:

    Sadly, I wasn’t as taken with this as you (partly because it was written more for an American audience, and I just didn’t know most of the books). While there were a couple of good bits, including the bit above and the ‘David Copperfield’ extract, I actually ended up liking him a little less – and I’ve read virtually all of his fiction…

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’m an American, and I didn’t know most of the books, either. That didn’t bother me at all, because I don’t know most of the books on most of the blogs I read — I see that as an opportunity, rather than a barrier to enjoyment. (I also wonder about the audience question, because he was living in London and getting his books primarily from British bookshops.) Still, perhaps you just like his fiction better than his nonfiction!

  2. gaskella says:

    I’ve had this on the shelf for a while. I love Hornby’s novels, but did worry slightly like Tony that I wouldn’t know half the books in this book, (ditto for his musical version 31 songs).

    • Jenny says:

      Well, again, that wasn’t a problem for me. He writes engagingly about books I’ve never heard of — very like most of the bloggers I love!

  3. litlove says:

    One of those books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I know I have it somewhere, but worryingly, can’t remember where…. Oh boy, that’s going to niggle at me now until I’ve found it!

  4. I enjoyed the heck out of these books, despite not having read or even heard of many of the books he was writing about. I admired how efficiently and vividly he could evoke the books for us, but also how he managed to create transitions between them that made every month into a reading narrative.

    Were the columns geared towards an American audience? I don’t remember finding that when I was reading them….

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think the columns were geared toward any audience except readers, but The Believer is an American magazine. Anyway, I agree with you that he made the reading fun and seamless.

  5. Susan E says:

    I thought this was a fun read. Like you, I didnt get too many recommendations out of it. I like that quote, but don’t think I agree–The Marriage of Figaro and Middlemarch, I d give to Mozart, much as I love Middlemarch. Fortunately, we get to have both :>)

    • Jenny says:

      See, I’d give it to Middlemarch, but my husband would be on your side! You’re right that we are very fortunate to have both.

  6. Steph says:

    I haven’t had much luck with Hornby’s fiction, but I have loved his non-fiction writing. I think he writes so engagingly and lovingly about books and writing, that even if I don’t walk away with a laundry list of new titles to seek out, I always enjoy the time spent with these books.

    • Jenny says:

      Steph, I’ve only read About a Boy of Hornby’s, and I wasn’t much impressed. But this, I really liked. I don’t think I could help myself. I was so charmed by his head-down love for reading.

  7. I LOVE this book and the other two that follow it. Like you, I didn’t get half as many book recs as I thought I would but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book. Lord knows I don’t need any more books on my TBR list!

    • Jenny says:

      You’re so right! Just because his taste and mine don’t perfectly overlap doesn’t mean this wasn’t a really fun read. Most of it was his enthusiasm, and his ability to convey the reading life that is so familiar to all of us who engage in it.

  8. Kristen M. says:

    I have two of these but didn’t want to grow my TBR quite yet so I haven’t read them. Maybe they’ll be fun reads for the short days of winter.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s a very short read, less than 200 pages, and my TBR didn’t come away *much* fatter. Go ahead, you know you want to!

  9. sakura says:

    I haven’t read any of Hornby’s fictions yet (although a friend has lent me Juliet, Naked) but I would like to read this one, just because it’s about books and reading.

    • Jenny says:

      Teresa really likes his fiction, but I wasn’t that impressed by About a Boy. Still, I really enjoyed this one, and would encourage you to start here.

  10. Ash says:

    I love Nick Hornby’s column Stuff I’ve Been Reading and I’ve read all of the collections. They’re so fun! And short, like getting coffee with a good friend. I never come away with too many recommendations but I enjoy the ride.

    • Jenny says:

      Getting coffee with a friend — that’s a good comparison. I only wish I had so many friends I could get coffee with who were as interested in talking about books as I am!

  11. Melissa says:

    I loved this book. I agree, it wasn’t just because of the recommendations, it was much more because he is such a funny writer.

  12. Dorothy W. says:

    I really loved this book as well. I think it was his voice that I found so appealing, which is always what does it for me with bloggers, columnists, and essayists. I really need to find a copy of the follow-up book!

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