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.