This post was combined and republished into my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive.
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
One of the easiest ways of adding lots of books to your wishlists, (apart from the recommendations of other bloggers of course), is to read a book about books. Even better if said book is a reading diary by an author you enjoy and respect. Nick Hornby is definitely that, and (football aside) his writing always resonates with me. We’re of the same generation, home-counties bred, live/lived in London, like a lot of the same music and stuff – so I crossed my fingers and hoped that I’d like a lot of what he read too.
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of Hornby’s ‘Stuff I’ve been reading’ columns from 2003 to mid 2007 for The Believer, an American literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers of McSweeneys fame. Hornby is given one commandment by the editors for his columns: “Thou shalt not slag anyone off.” which does give Hornby a dilemma in how to write about books he didn’t enjoy… “My solution was to try to choose books I knew I would like.” but he adds “I’m not sure this idea is as blindingly obvious as it seems.”
The Polysyllabic Spree by the way is the name he comes up with to refer to the Believer’s editorial staff – a literary pastiche of The Polyphonic Spree (right), a large pop group of the early noughties onwards who have a habit of wearing white choir robes and having ’60s hip sensibilities. This becomes a rather sweet running joke from column to column throughout the book, and their numbers are never the same.
But on to the books themselves… At the front of each column, Hornby lists the books he has bought, and the books he has read. Each list is interesting, however he says in an aside, “When I’m arguing with St Peter at the Pearly Gates, I’m going to tell him to ignore the Books Read column, and focus on the Books Bought instead. ‘This is really who I am, I’ll tell him.” Something I can identify with!
He reads a huge variety of books – including quite a lot of non-fiction, biographies, reportage etc. I was very pleased to see we’re in tune about Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir: “Chronicles ends up managing to inform without damaging the mystique, which is some feat.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
One book I haven’t read but should do, is Truman Capote’s groundbreaking In Cold Blood. This book, Hornby says:
“is one of the most influential books of the last fifty years, and as far as I can tell, just about every work of novelistic non-fiction published since the 1960s owes it something or another. But the trouble with influential books is that if you have absorbed the influence without ever reading the original, then it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the magnitude of its achievement.”
So true – I found the same with Zamyatkin’s 1924 dystopian novel We (reviewed here), it is rather overshadowed by Orwell’s 1984 which it directly influenced and I read first.
Another author I’m very keen to read is Patrick Hamilton. Hornby develops a passion for his books – “He’s a sort of urban Hardy: everyone is doomed, right from the first page.” Time I dug out Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky – I know I own a copy. Hornby has also (almost) persuaded me to give a novel I’ve given up on in frustration after a few pages (twice) another go. That book is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
“I had to reread passages from Gilead several times – beautiful, luminous passages about grace, and debt, and baptism – before I half-understood them, however: there are complicated and striking ideas on every single page.”
He does acknowledge that he had to be in the right frame of mind to read it though – and read it over a period of several weeks. I think I’m willing to give it another go thanks to Nick Hornby. [Tried – and failed again! Ed]
I really enjoyed this volume of Hornby’s thoughts in this volume, all the more so as in the majority of cases, he was reading the books discussed for pleasure. In the introduction he states:
“Being paid to read a book and then write about it creates a dynamic which compromises the reviewer in all kinds of ways, very few of them helpful. So this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”
He does go on to say it made him choose slightly differently, but I did that too once I started blogging, so I can understand it. I thought he had some really interesting things to say, and his style is never to ram his opinions down our throats, but to elucidate with wit (and occasional references to Arsenal FC). This is a friendly book about books, and I really enjoyed it. (9/10)
Stuff I’ve Been Reading by Nick Hornby
I was very lucky to receive a proof copy of Stuff I’ve Been Reading, Hornby’s sequel to The Complete Polysyllabic Spree discussed above. And I’m delighted to tell you that it:
- was just as good as The CPS,
- had little of the running gag about the Spree staff that the last collection was full of. Whilst funny once, it would be wearing a second time;
- takes us from summer 2006 where the last volume ended up to the end of 2011;
- still lists ‘Books bought’ and ‘Books read’;
- would be a wonderful Christmas present for anyone who loves books about books and/or is looking for recommendations to readhas added a lot more titles to my wishlist!
I’ll share a few of my highlights. Firstly, remembering what he said in the previous volume that he was writing about the books that he had mostly read for pleasure – this tickled me…
The annoying thing about reading is that you can never get the job done. The other day I was in a bookstore flicking through a book called something like ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’ (and, without naming names, you should be aware that the task set by the title is by definition impossible, because at least 400 of the books suggested would kill you anyway), but reading begets reading – that’s sort of the point of it, surely? – ad anybody who never deviates from a set list of books is intellectually dead, anyway.
One of the themes in his reading at the start of this volume, is his discovery of young adult fiction. He had written a YA novel himself (Slam) and on a trip to promote it in the US, started to really discover the world of children’s fiction from an adult reader’s perspective.
I read Skellig on the plane, and though I have no idea whether it’s the third greatest children’s book of the last seventy years, I can tell you that it’s one of the best novels published in the last decade, and I’d never heard of it. … The only problem with reading Skellig at an advanced age is that it’s over before you know it; a twelve-year-old might be able to eke it out, spend a little longer in the exalted, downbeat world that Almond creates. Skellig is a children’s book because it is accessible and because it has children at the centre of its narrative, but, believe me, it’s for you too, because it’s for everybody, and the author knows it. … …suddenly, I’m aware that there may well be scores of authors like David Almond, people producing masterpieces that I am ignorant of because I happen to be older than the intended readership.
Well said! I’ve long been a champion of YA and children’s books that adults can read too. This sets him off on a stream of reading such books. I do hope that some adult readers of this book will be tempted to try a few after noting Hornby’s approval.
Elsewhere, he gets into some of the nominated novels for the ‘Lost Booker’ – 1970 the year they changed the timing rules, so a whole year’s books couldn’t be entered for the Book Prize. He reads and enjoys Nina Bawden’s The birds on the trees, and Muriel Spark’s The Drivers Seat finding that ‘its icy strangeness is part of its charm’. This sets him off reading lots more Spark. He says:
‘But what a writer Spark is – dry, odd, funny, aphoristic, wise, technically brilliant.’
Hornby is able to put things so well. For instance, writing about Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, a contemporary werewolf novel set in LA and written in blank verse, he is able to get to the essence of the style, saying: ‘The blank verse does precisely what Barlow must have hoped it would do, namely, adds intensity without distracting, or affecting readability.’ I loved this book (reviewed here), and was glad to find that Hornby did too.
The other joy of reading about what Nick Hornby’s been reading is his love of non-fiction. His choices are always interesting, and while I may not go on to read them necessarily, it is fascinating to hear his views.
All the above is interspersed with asides on football, family, and culture in general. Although the asides set the date within the book’s chronology, the fact that this is a diary is largely irrelevant, except for some of the trails he is set off on by his circumstances. Hornby is an everyman in the world of reading.
Once again, I loved being in his company, and would thoroughly recommend this book and its predecessor to anyone who loves reading about books. (9/10)
Source: Own copy & Review copy respectively.
Nick Hornby – The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (2006), Stuff I’ve Been Reading (2013) Viking hardbacks.