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The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

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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.”

polyphonic-spree3The 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.”  This is so true. Although I enjoyed Zamyatkin’s 1924 dystopian novel We, it is rather overshadowed by Orwell’s 1984 which it directly influenced.

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.

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)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please follow the links below:
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, 2006, Penguin paperback, 288 pages.
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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