Today’s book review is The complete Polysyllabic Spree – the Diary of an Occasionally Exasperated But Ever Hopeful Reader, by Nick Hornby (interestingly only available on Amazon UK, not US). This is a collection of Nick Hornby’s monthly essays on the books he’s read that month, from Believer magazine (a US magazine which I had never heard of but sounds worth reading).
It’s a wonderfully honest tour through the book reading habits of an inveterate reader. I kept wanting to quote bits out loud to anyone nearby as I was reading it, but most of the pleasure of reading Nick Hornby’s writing comes in the way he piles things together so that you have to read the whole page to really get the joke.
He starts each month with two columns – books bought and books read – rarely do they match. And he lists everything, not just the worthy or serious books, so that one of his first columns contains How to stop smoking and stay stopped for good. And then he writes an essay talking about all the books he read; what he liked; and, to some extent, what he didn’t like. Although apparently the Believer didn’t like it when he was negative, so he stops reading books he think he won’t like, so he won’t have to be rude about them.
His preface, which I loved, is a plea to everyone who likes reading to read what they like; don’t feel guilty for not liking the books they feel they ought to read, but rather to read things for enjoyment.
The regrettable thing about the culture war we still, after all these years, seem to be fighting is that it divides books into two camps, the trashy and the worthwhile. No one who is paid to talk about books for a living seems to be able to convey the message that this isn’t how it works, that ‘good’ books can provide every bit as much pleasure as ‘trashy’ ones. Why worry about that if there’s no difference anyway? Because it gives you more choice. You may not have to read about conspiracies, or the romantic tribulations of thirtysomething women, in order to be entertained. You may find that you’re enthralled by Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Great Expectations. Read anything, as long as you can’t wait to pick it up again.
I think I’ve learned some of this lesson; after reading a George Eliot novel in high school (I honestly can’t remember which one) and remembering so little of it when I’d finished that I was incapable of writing a review, I though I hated “good” fiction. But then when I started working and had a long commute, I read Les Miserables and War and Peace consecutively, and loved both of them. But I think I need to get better about realizing early on when I’m not going to enjoy a book, and not feeling guilty about it.
I’ve started Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy about four times now. I think I just have to realize its not for me, and I don’t have to feel guilty for not enjoying a book with huge critical acclaim.
But anyway, back to the book. At first I wanted to read every book that Nick Hornby loved – his enthusiasm gushes over. But after a while I realized we didn’t share the same tastes after all. And the beauty of this book is that is so personal that you really start to understand why he likes books; why he doesn’t, and which of his recommendations will work for you. I read it in a gulp, because I love his writing, so I will have to go back and savour it, and write some of the books down that I will like.
Each column he talks about some of his pet hates and loves about the books he reads – one rant I particularly enjoyed was about a biography (anonymous, because he’s not allowed to write negatively about something identifiable):
The biography I abandoned was of a major cultural figure of the twentieth century – he died less than forty years ago – so when you see, in the opening chapter, the parentheses ‘(1782 – 1860)’ after a name, it’s really only natural that you become a little disheartened: you’re a long, long way from the action. I made it through to 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 just as easily have grown up to be Hemingway, or Phil Silvers, or any other midcentury 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.
Anyway, I loved this book, and I think anyone who is a voracious reader will do the same. It’s not a heavy read, or one that will keep you entertained for hours and hours, but it’s one you will enjoy dipping into and reading again.