Title: The Polysyllabic Spree
Author: Nick Hornby
Publisher: Believer Books
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my own library
First line: So this is supposed to be about the how, and when, and why, and what of reading – about the way that, when reading is going well, one book leads to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning; and how, when it’s going badly, when books don’t stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you’d rather do anything but attempt the next paragraph, or reread the last one for the tenth time.
Reading one of Nick Hornby’s essays about his book habits doesn’t feel like reading. It feels like sitting down with a good friend – one who is smarter, more sarcastic, and much funnier than you are – and talking books. I started The Polysyllabic Spree as soon as we got back to our hotel room last Friday night, and devoured half of it before putting my book aside to watch a movie with Kevin.
This is the second collection of Hornby’s essays for The Believer that I’ve read, and I loved them both. If you haven’t yet read these (the other titles are Housekeeping vs. the Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote for Money), you should get to your nearest library or bookstore right away. If you don’t you’re missing out on wry and witty observations on being a book lover, like these:
Toward the end of the book, Otto and Sophie, the central couple, go to stay in their holiday home. Sophie opens the door to the house, and is immediately reminded of a friend, an artist who used to visit them there; she thinks about him for a page or so. The reason she’s thinking about him is that she’s staring at something he loved, a vinegar bottle shaped like a bunch of grapes. The reason she’s staring at the bottle is because it’s in pieces. And the reason it’s in pieces is because someone has broken in and trashed the place, a fact we only discover when Sophie has snapped out of her reverie. At this point, I realized with some regret that not only could I never write a literary novel, but I couldn’t even be a character in a literary novel. I can only imagine myself, or any other character I created, saying, “Sh*t! Some b*stard has trashed the house!” No rumination about artist friends – just a lot of cursing, and maybe some empty threats of violence.
I read 55 percent of the books I bought this month – five and a half out of ten. Two of the unread books, however, are volumes of poetry, and, to my way of thinking, poetry books work more like books of reference: They go up on the shelves straight away (as opposed to onto the bedside table), to be taken down and dipped into every now and again. (And, before any outraged poets explode, I’d like to point out that I’m one of the seventy-three people in the world who buys poetry.)
Why hasn’t anyone ever told me that Mystic River is right up there with Presumed Innocent and Red Dragon? Because I don’t know the right kind of people, that’s why. In the last three weeks, about five different people have told me that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is a work of genius, and I’m sure it is; I intend to read it soonest…I’m equally sure, however, that I won’t walk into a lamp-post while reading it, like I did with Presumed Innocent all those years ago; you don’t walk into lamp-posts when you’re reading literary novels, do you?…I’m happy to have friends who recommend Alan Hollinghurst, really I am. They’re all nice, bright people. I just wish I had friends who could recommend books like Mystic River, too. Are you that person? Do you have any vacancies for a pal? If you can’t be bothered with a full-on friendship, with all the tearful, drunken late-night phone calls and bitter accusations and occasional acts of violence thus entailed (the violence is always immediately followed by an apology, I hasten to add), then maybe you could just tell me the titles of the books.
Not only did this book make me nod my head, say “yes” under my breath, and laugh out loud – it had me adding a few titles to my to-read list. What more could you want?