Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Polysyllabic Spree

The (Complete) Polysyllabic Spree - Nick Hornby

This is a collection of a series of articles on his reading matter that Nick Hornby wrote for The  Believer Magazine between September 2003  and June 2006. It seemed like appropriate reading matter given my current reading spree.

The titular Spree is  Nick's take on the editors of the magazine whom he represents as a sort of religious cult whose number fluctuate wildly and wear white robes similar to The Polyphonic Spree (see below) when not wearing nothing at all.

One of the the things he does for each article is list the Books Bought and Books Read at the top of each article. A goodly portion of the book is given over to explaining the discrepancies between these lists. Hornby gets given books by friends and publishers and occasionally an unread book emerges from his shelves, often with the help of a child's hand. One of thee children, it turns out, is autistic. So I have something else in common with Mr Hornby. I know that reading can be a very 'in between' activity.

The tone of the articles/book is wryly humourous and steadfastly middlebrow.  How much of this is Nick Hornby or Nick Hornby™ is hard to tell. A lot of what he says rings true though, in a non world changing way. He starts by insisting that reading is a leisure activity, primarily for enjoyment. It's not true  that "books must be hard work, otherwise they're a waste of time." He notes that although a lot of intelligence has gone into the creation of many books "the intelligence is non transferable." He also makes the point that looking down at what someone else is reading may be a very damaging activity in a country (and indeed a world) where illiteracy is rife. Let each enjoy their own.

 When trying to tell someone why they should read a book (Great Expectations) he fails to remember any significant details "other than its excellence". This brings him to the realization that "as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of, say, fifteen and forty, I haven't even read the books I think I've read." Given that I have read books all the way through thinking I haven't read them fully only to realise at the last page that I have, how true is my claim to have read the books I claim to have read. What, if anything, can I tell you about many of them? Not a lot.

High Fidelity is brought to mind when he mentions finding a place for a book on his shelves "in the Arts and Lit non-fiction section." He makes the aside that "I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey." Personally, I have a largely defeatist attitude to organising my books, each system seems to have one major flaw. (Me)

Although at one stage he swears off modern literature because of the danger of disappointment (which is to be avoided as much as possible) it is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead that appears to make the greatest impression on Hornby. "Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is clearly a modern classic, and it hasn't even been in print for five minutes. It's a beautiful, rich, unforgettable work of high seriousness.." ... "I had to reread  passages from Gilead several times - beautiful, luminous passages about grace, and debt, and baptism.." ..."the astonishing hush that Marilynne Robinson achieves.." He even swallows his own words - "This column has frequently suggested that a novel without forward momentum isn't really worth bothering with, but that theory, like so many others, turned out not to be worth the (admittedly very expensive) paper it was printed on: Gilead has turned me into a wiser and better person."

My own expectations of Gilead (see review of Robinson's Home) have been brought to an even higher pitch by this but I have yet to come across it in the local Charity Shops. (Anyone with an unwanted copy can donate it to the Sue Ryder shop in Portarlington with a caveat to only sell it to me)

I have to say that his willingness to acknowledge the wonder of a great book left me feeling more well disposed towards the columnist and I was able to enjoy his Little Englander persona all the more for this slipping of the mask. I will end with a quote about the current love of "the Spare" in literature. After talking about one of Dicken's wonderful gallery of grotesques he asks - "Could he have been cut? Absolutely he could have been cut. But there comes a point in the writing process when a novelist - any novelist, even a great one - has to accept that what he is doing is keeping one end of a book away from the other, filling up pages, in the hope that these pages will move provoke and entertain a reader."

There are thoughts on the vast numbers of books, what constitutes a cultured reader and many other fripperies to amuse the reader. The book is good company.

It inspired me to look at my own  Bought Books for the last two weeks alone gives me a clue as to why I can't get on top of my shelves of unread books. This is a larger than usual pile.

I Curse the River of Time - Per Petterson
The Infinities - John Banville
A Fraction of the Whole - Steve Tolz
The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson
The Books in My Life - Colin Wilson
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Simon Armitage
Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi
The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
Stick - Elmore Leonard
Pronto - Elmore Leonard
The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffeger
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes - Gary Imlach
Ironweed - William Kennedy
The Long Dark Tea Time of The Soul - Douglas Adams
Enduring Love - Ian McEwan
The Life of Benvenuto Cellini - Benvenuto Cellini
The Tain - Translated by Thomas Kinsella
Bad Vibes - Luke Haines
The Bonfire of Berlin - Helga Schneider
Angels and Insects - A.S. Byatt
The Rotter's Club - Johnathan Coe
The Hours - Michael Cunningham
No longer at Ease - Chinua Achebe
Preventing the Future - Tom Garvin
Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste - Lester Bangs

26, and there may be some I am missing out. All these in two weeks. But most cost €1 or less. How can they be resisted? All I need to do to catch up is read 500 books next year. (No Problem?)


  1. Another great review! You have a knack for finding the best quotes to exemplify a book.

    I added a link to your review on my review page. Thanks for leaving a comment so I could find your review.

  2. @Rose City Reader - Thanks for linking my review (And the praise - false or true, it's always welcome). God, looking back on the buying spree listed above I note that I have only read 5 of the 26 books listed - but still want to read them all.