Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Polysyllabic Spree

The Polysyllabic Spree
Nick Hornby (2004, Believer Books)

"There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you’re a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I’m beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they’re a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy."

Here's another wonderful book about books, this one a collection of Nick Hornby's reviews for the Believer magazine. The column is actually called "Stuff I've Been Reading", which sums it up nicely. "The Polysyllabic Spree" is Hornby's name for the editorial staff of the magazine; it's a spoof on 'the Polyphonic Spree', which Google informs me is a musical group with some cult-like attributes. The point of the jibes about the Believer staff is that they are a high-minded bunch, whose philosophy is "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." That can be a hardship on a reviewer: from time to time Hornby has to mark a gap in his list of books read, as "Unnamed Literary Novel (abandoned.)" even if that's a kindness the novel's author doesn't deserve. After all, says Hornby, "maybe a literary novel is just a novel that doesn't really work, and an art film merely a film that people don't want to see..." Hey!
I admired the breadth of Hornby's reading over these fourteen months. He read several literary biographies, and Checkov's letters; and the poetry of Tony Hoagland (whom I had also somehow missed. He's good, somewhat in the vein of Billy Collins, an observation I intend as a compliment to both. Hornby himself, for that matter, sounds like Stephen Fry.) He read Mystic River, and Moneyball, and a book about blockbuster movies. And he thinks Dickens is the best novelist ever, but only just got around to David Copperfield.
Each month's column is headed by a lists of Books Bought, and Books Read. Naturally, the lists don't always overlap, let alone match--this is a comfort to me, not that I thought I was the only one. Here he is on the books that don't even make the To Read pile: "But as I was finding a home for them in the Arts and Lit non-fiction section (I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey), I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal."
Well, one of the top three, I'd say, up there with music and friends. Wishing you the joys of all three--

Emailed October 2006

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