By Nick Hornby
McSweeney's, 230 pp., $14.00
Even though as a critic I recommend books for a living, my most rewarding experience of praising a novel was not in print, but in person. I was sitting in the corner of a bar where I used to go read at night because you could smoke there. A friend stopped by and asked what I was reading and I described the novel--Monica Ali's Brick Lane--and why it was keeping me up at night. She said, "Hey, that sounds good; I don't sleep anyway." A week later she came in and told me she had not only bought the book, but had read it and liked it. She even approved of the ending, which everyone seems to have problems with. I gave her another recommendation, which she bought and read. Over the next six months I think I cost her about $150, and each time she came in we talked about the book she had just read.
If you're a person who charges headlong into these kinds of conversations, then Nick Hornby's chummy new book, Polysyllabic Spree, is a volume after your heart. Composed over the course of a year for The Believer magazine, it is essentially a reading diary that logs and rants about what Hornby was buying and reading and why. Because this is a reading diary as opposed to a straight book review, Hornby can toss in everything that is sacred--but annoyingly fussy--about book reviewing.
As most readers probably know, Hornby is famous for his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, but he is first and foremost a fanatic, someone who thrives on obsession. His first book was a memoir about being a soccer fan; his best--by my yardstick--was his recent collection of essays on music, Songbook, which McSweeney's published in 2003 with a nifty CD attached to the hardcover. Like most fanatics Hornby is terrifically passionate about what he likes, but unlike most fanatics he isn't going to tell you that you're an idiot for hearing about something for the first time through him.
Polysyllabic Spree is written in this spirit. Everything that is typically covert in reviewing books becomes overt in Hornby's monthly diary of what he bought, shelved and read. He reveals who he knows and how that affects his reading, confesses how badly he read a book (of Tobias Wolff's novel Old School he says, "I should have read it in one sitting") and even admits to what he gets in the mail for free and what he actually buys (which is important to note in a format like this, because books that simply appear on his doorstep have a leg up in getting his attention). He even owns up to hating science books: "[E]very time I pick up any kind of book about science I start to cry."
Because Polysyllabic Spree was originally published in The Believer--the magazine started by Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits as an alternative to snarky criticism--Hornby keeps the griping to a minimum. Most of his ire is directed at himself: for being such a lazy reader, for not being smart enough to "get it" (or understand the point of a book), for flattering his intellectual ego by buying great big tomes of letters and diaries by highbrow writers he knows he will never read. Here is a typical example of Hornby melding self-deprecation and literary criticism to create a disarmingly sincere tone:
"We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and airplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes--usually late at night, in bed--he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through 20 or 30 pages, it felt to me as though I'd socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses."
It is through metaphors like this that Hornby snatches reading back from the dusty, obligatory lilt of criticism that presumes you have six hours a day to read and a library of knowledge behind you. You can read this little book in 90 minutes if you're in a hurry, or you can stretch it out over a few days and savor it. Either way, it will give you a remarkable opportunity to spend some time in conversation with a guy who will almost certainly make you go out and buy what he reads.