The Polysyllabic Spree
by Nick Hornby
A review by Georgie Lewis
Nick Hornby is probably best loved for his engaging, slightly neurotic twenty/thirty-something
male narrators -- commitment-scared, music fanatic Rob Fleming in High
Fidelity or mildly depressed, detached slacker Will Freeman in About
a Boy, or Hornby himself in his memoir of football fanaticism, Fever
Pitch. I've found his ventures with female narrators or characters that vary
too far from his age or areas of interest are far less convincing. Perhaps Hornby
is best writing about things he can directly relate to. What works for Hornby
is his easy-going voice, his enthusiasm and passion. It is not irritatingly earnest,
but it is genuine. You just can't help but like the guy. Which is why the collection
of essays on literature compiled from his articles written for the Believer
magazine is so good!
Now, I'd be the first to treat that previous sentence with some skepticism.
I am not an avid reader of literary criticism, I'm sorry to say. I did my time
at university with a desk overloaded by tomes of semiotics, text and context
summaries, and French literary theory and its inherent debates. (Ok, even now
I'm grasping to remember a single debate -- but debate they did, I know that
much!) And I wouldn't doubt that Hornby would blush at the idea of his wonderful
collection of essays receiving the lofty title of Literary Criticism. Let's
call them essays and move on to why they are such fun and good and ridiculously
Like many of us, Nick Hornby buys about three times more books than he is ever
going to read. He picks up books that he is in the mood to read. One book may
inspire him to read another by the same author or on the same topic, and at
no time does he appear swayed by the trends and moods of contemporary book reviews.
For him reading is unadulterated pleasure and he conveys his enthusiasm for
the books he reads -- be it a collection of poems, a biography of Robert Lowell,
or a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes -- with the same passion as Rob Fleming
does for his vintage record collection.
The assignment Hornby took on at the Believer was to keep a reading
diary from month to month, and he lists at the beginning of each essay what
books he bought and what books he read in that time. Many times these become
quite divergent lists. This slim volume (far too slim for my mind -- I want
more!) is made up of fourteen of these essays and occasionally a short excerpt
of one of the books he mentions. Each essay is terrific and inspiring -- I dare
a reader not to hoof it down to their local book shop and grab a copy of David
Copperfield after learning about Hornby's month of reading the famed (and
frequently left unread) Dickens classic. Take his closing paragraph:
For the first time since I've been writing this column, the completion of
a book has left me feeling bereft: I miss them all. Let's face it: You're
usually just happy as hell to have chalked another one up on the board, but
this last month I've been living in this hyperreal world, full of memorable,
brilliantly eccentric people, and laughs (I hope you know how funny Dickens
is), and proper bendy stories you want to follow.
I love his use of terms like "proper bendy stories," or when, in
writing about Julie Orringer, he describes her "narrative settings"
as "fresh and wonderfully knotty."
Hornby agrees to the Believer's ultra-upbeat requirements (one is not
allowed to write anything "snarky" about books and they used to have
a "Snarkwatch" to record unfair and hyper-critical book reviews. I'll
not comment on this policy, lest I appear "snarky.") so he avoids
naming the bad books he attempted to read. This, to me, is the only disappointment
in this collection. When he ventures into this territory he can be very amusing.
On an attempt to read one unnamed biography he writes:
I made it through the subject's birth, but then got irritated by a long-winded
story about a prank he played on a little girl when he was seven. I had always
suspected, even before I knew anything about him, that this major cultural
figure was once a small boy, so the confirmation was superfluous. And the
prank was so banal that he could have just as easily have grown up to be Hemingway,
or Phil Silvers, or any other mid-century colossus. It wasn't, like, a revealingly
or quintessentially _____ esque prank. At that point I threw the book down
in disgust, and it went straight through the bedroom floor, only just missing
a small child. Please, Biographers. Please, please, please. Have mercy. Select
And I'll exhort: Please, please, please Believer magazine. Let Hornby
show as much passion for things he dislikes as things he likes. Life isn't just
cookies and lemonade. People fart occasionally.
That minor quibble (and ghastly analogy) aside, this is a book about reading
that inspires you to read widely for all the rewards that books can provide.
I would, if I could, impress upon you my love for this book as convincingly
as Hornby does for his favorites. Even if you don't go on to read what Hornby
reads, you'll have a great time reading what Hornby writes.