[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Collection of essays highlights Hornby's love of reading, flair for writing
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Mon Feb 7 22:31:00 UTC 2005
Collection of essays highlights Hornby's love of reading, flair for writing
By Carol Iaciofano, Globe Correspondent | January 19, 2005
The Polysyllabic Spree: 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, By Nick Hornby, Believer Books 230 pp., $14
If you love to read, or like to read, or you're in that vast category
of those wishing for more time to read, here is a book that will have
you saying "yes" and "so true," or just have you smiling in knowing
amusement at most pages. "The Polysyllabic Spree," (yes, it's a
takeoff on "The Polyphonic Spree") is a collection of English writer
Nick Hornby's recent "Stuff I've Been Reading" monthly columns for The
Believer magazine, whose stated mission is to be an "amiable yet
rigorous forum for writing about books."
Fans of Hornby know him for books such as "About a Boy" and "High
Fidelity" (and movies of the same names). Fans also know that being
persistently amiable is not his style. Which, of course, makes his
writing very entertaining.
This is not a collection of book reviews, but a reading diary of sharp
and thoughtful musings on literature that ultimately asks: Why do we
Like many of us, Hornby buys a lot more books than he reads. The
reasons are not mysterious. He's got a job, three kids, and a love of
(English) football. He watches TV to unwind. In his first essay, he
sets an unapologetic tone by dismissing any potential complaints that
he spends too much on books. "I know that already," he says. "I
certainly 'intend' to read all of them, more or less. My 'intentions'
are good. Anyway, it's my money. And I'll bet you do it, too."
Er, how did you know?
But buying books is half the fun. For anyone who's ever browsed around
a bookstore, reading Hornby's accounts of how one book led him to
another, or how he discovered a new author nearly by accident, is like
reconnecting with an erudite friend.
Each essay is bannered by two lists: "Books Bought" and "Books Read."
This gives the ensuing essay a personality before you start it. The
"Books Read" list also includes notations of which ones are unfinished
and which ones have been abandoned.
One book Hornby couldn't make himself finish was Bob Woodward's "Bush
at War." Hornby only read about a third of it before grumbling that
"Woodward's tone was too matey and sympathetic for me." One passage
did surprise him. He's amazed that the Secret Service needed to wake
up President Bush at 11:08 on the night of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Woken up! He didn't work late that night? And he wasn't too buzzy to
get off to sleep?"
Hornby reads all kinds of books -- from Robert Lowell's poems to
Dennis Lehane's novels to helpful books on quitting smoking (which
he's read again and again). Of Lehane's multilayered novels, Hornby
admiringly writes "everything seems organic . . . almost nothing . . .
seems contrived." These are the kinds of books that Hornby searches
for, those that will make you "walk into a lamp-post" while reading
But reading widely doesn't mean you've read everything. Hornby takes
to task those literary critics who give away plots of classics in
their essays, under the assumption that everyone has already read them
("I know the only thing brainy people do with their lives is reread
great works of fiction, but surely even . . . Harold Bloom read before
Hornby has other frustrations, all voiced with droll acuity, all
stemming from the love of the well-written word. He can dispatch a
scholarly trend with a few short strokes. Take the current "obsession
with austerity" in universities and writing workshops, designed to
pare all writing down to bare bone.
"Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of
an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there's nothing very
utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people
are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because
it's such a [cushy] thing to do in the first place."
Not one to diagnose without offering a cure, Hornby has a useful
antidote for another bookish dilemma: all the Really Big Biographies
that frequently burden the bestseller lists. Under Hornby's rules,
before writing a biography, you would apply to the "National Biography
Office" for a permit that spells out "the number of pages you get." A
biography would only edge toward a thousand pages for someone of
Dickens's stature. In this framework, most current biographies would
be about 200-300 pages shorter than the length at which they're
This would also spare many of us the guilt of avoiding books we can't
pick up with one hand.
Chekhov's "A Life in Letters" is excerpted at the end of the book. The
letters resonate as strongly today as they did when the great man
wrote them. As Hornby says, "useful advice -- and tough love." Some of
the same could be said for Hornby's writing and his love of books.
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