the polysyllabic spree, by nick hornby

A collection of fourteen months of his essays from the Believer magazine:
A hilarious and true account of one man’s struggle
with the monthly tide of the books he’s bought
and the books he’s been meaning to read.

Of all the books written about books, this is my favorite. I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s non-fiction, be it about books, music, sports or anything else. He’s erudite, cranky and conversational, for which I’m grateful. For several years, Hornby wrote a column for Believer magazine, detailing his book buying and reading, month by month. He’s not writing it anymore, but his columns are collected in three books, of which The Polysyllabic Spree is the first. The title refers to his name for “the ninety-nine young and menacingly serene people who run the Believer.” The magazine, as its name indicates, runs on a basic and unflinching principle: talk about books and the people who write them with joy rather than malice. No snarking, no smuggery (yes, I’ve just made that word up, and I’m copyrighting it). Tongue in cheek, Hornby takes this to heart and when he recounts reading something he really hates, does it without identifying the book. Which makes for the occasional very brief review. It’s a rare case where he isn’t engaged on some level, though, and the web of connections he manages to spin amongst his impressively disparate library is amazing. I’d love to sit next to him on a park bench sometime, and just wind him up and set him ticking. Reading his column has led me to wonderful reading experiences, and has also helped me thin out some of my own library acquisitions to make room for worthier stuff.

Some samples, should you need further convincing:

Clockers was my big book of the month, the centerpiece around which I can now arrange the short books so that they look functional – pretty, even, if I position them right. I cheated a little, I know – Clockers is essentially a thriller, so it didn’t feel as through I’d had to work for my 650 pages – but it was still a major reading job. Why isn’t Richard Price incredibly famous, like Tom Wolfe? His work is properly plotted, indisputably authentic and serious-minded, and it has soul and moral authority.”

“I’ve been trying to write a short story that entails my knowing something about contemporary theories of time – hence Introducing Time – but every time I pick up any kind of book about science I start to cry. This actually inhibits my reading pretty badly, due to not being able to see. I’m OK with time theorists up until, say, St. Augustine, and then I start to panic, and the panic then gives way to actual weeping. By my estimation, I should be able to understand Newton by the time I’m 850 years old – by which time I’ll probably discover that some smartass has invented a new theory, and he’s out of date anyway. The short story should be done some time shortly after that. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, because it’s killing me.”

“…if you get to the end of Random Family and conclude that it was written to create “a frisson,” then, I’m sorry, but you should be compelled to have your literacy surgically removed, without anesthetic.”

“Tony Hoagland is the sort of poet you dream of finding but almost never do. His work is relaxed, deceptively easy on the eye and ear, and it has jokes and unexpected little bursts of melancholic resonance. Plus, I pretty much understood all of it, and yet it’s clever – as you almost certainly know, contemporary poetry is a kind of Reykjavik, a place where accessibility and intelligence have been fighting a Cold War by proxy for the last half-century.”

If you don’t have The Pollysyllabic Spree, buy it. Sales go to support education and creative writing programs in the US and UK. If you already bought this one, but it’s in the not-read column of your personal scoreboard, put it in your tote bag now. It’s your friend.

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