The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

Reading Nick Hornby is like sitting down with a good friend for a chat about books, movies, people, whatever. He’s smart and funny, but he is not pretentious; or when he verges on pretension, he beats you to the punch, apologizing for his vanity (that’s so British of him), vowing it will never happen again, or that it probably will happen again, but he’s only human, right? In both his fiction (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and How to Be Good) and his non-fiction (Fever Pitch and Songbook), Hornby consistently exemplifies Kurt Vonnegut’s maxim for successful writing: that the writer be a good date for the reader. The writer must not be too smart, or too nasty, or too obscure, or too obnoxious. The writer is to be polite, funny, engaging, courteous, friendly. Hornby is the rare writer who can say a whole hell of a lot without coming off as smugly proud of himself for being able to say so much.

In that respect, Hornby found a perfect fit in the Believer, a literary-magazine offshoot of Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s. The credo of the magazine is to foster a positive environment for creative writers and artists. The editors pledge that their reviews will never be nasty or snide or, in their own words, “snarky,” a malaise that they feel has gripped the mainstream book press. Their mission is admirable, even if they go about it in a somewhat adolescent manner (I mean, really, not everything can be good; certain things deserve negative criticism, no?). The Polysyllabic Spree collects 14 months’ worth of Nick Hornby’s column in the magazine devoted to what he’d been reading the past month. For all his amiability, however, even Hornby finds the editors of the Believer a bit zealous: the title of the book gently lampoons them, likening them the esoteric rock band The Polyphonic Spree, which consists of a large group of people wearing robes; he feels like a philistine and dullard when compared to this bunch of young, ambitious, hyper-literary vegans with strong convictions and hang-ups, living very much up in the ivory tower. In fact, when Hornby has something bad to say about a novel, he refuses to mention the novel by name, fearing the wrath of the Spree. That’s what’s so great about Hornby. His voice is one of innocence and curiosity, yes, but it is also the voice of a middle-aged man, tinged with a sense of realism and maturity.

Hornby’s last book of essays, Songbook, was a collection of musings on his favorite songs and albums. The books was beautifully produced by McSweeney’s to look like a mix tape, and attached to the inside cover was a CD containing ten of the songs Hornby discusses in the book. The Polysyllabic Spree is somewhat the same thing, but for books instead of music. At the beginning of each column, Hornby lists the books he’s purchased and the books he’s actually read during the last month. In the first chapter in the book, chronicling September 2003, the reader instantly notices that Hornby bought ten books, including a few hefty literary biographies. Does that seem like showing off? Well, Hornby wonders that too, writing,

And don’t waste your breath trying to tell me that I’m showing off. This month, maybe, I’m showing off a little…. But next month I may spend my allotted space desperately trying to explain how come I’ve only managed three pages of a graphic novel and the sports section of the Daily Mirror in four whole weeks — in which case, please don’t bother accusing me of philistinism, laziness, or pig-ignorance.

Hornby is just humble enough that you cannot hate or resent him, yet authoritative enough that you still retain some reason to respect and be interested in his opinion on books. That in itself is not a feat many writers could pull off so elegantly, if at all.

Hornby’s reading during the fourteen months covered by the collection is vast and varied: one entire month is devoted to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield; other months are devoted to books about sports, including biographies of famous soccer coaches as well as Moneyball, the best-selling book about baseball management; other months are filled with literary fiction, like that of Tobias Wolff and Jonathan Lethem; and, quite hilariously, at various points during this stretch Hornby returns to How to Stop Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good by Gillian Riley. These columns are not book reviews. Sometimes Hornby spends as much time talking about the books he bought but has not read as he does about the books he actually has read. As he writes in the opening words of the book, “So this is supposed to be about the how, and when, and why, and what of reading.” Given that Hornby is an excellent novelist and critic, as well as a seemingly warm-hearted and engaging man, his meandering examination of these issues makes for compelling and entertaining reading.

Should I get a bit snarky, just to thumb my nose at the Believer crowd? I could say that Hornby’s obsession with how people’s personalities are best represented through their collections of books, or movies, or music, is getting a bit old by now. One of the central themes of both High Fidelity as well as Songbook was that you are what you listen to, that your iPod paints a better picture of you than your DNA. Now Hornby makes that same claim about books. In fact, in a wonderful passage in the book, Hornby makes the case that books, taken as a whole, are a more potent and powerful art form than songs:

If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go 15 rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points…. You might get the occasional exception — Blonde on Blonde might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say… but I’m still backing literature 29 times out of 30.

Hornby’s place in culture was that he was the music guy. So now he’s the book guy (well, I guess he’s got an excuse, since he is a novelist and all). When Hornby next writes a book about his favorite movies, are we going to get the same spiel again, now claiming that movies definitely beat out books and songs, hands down?

That’s a minor point however. I for one am not walking away from this book feeling that Hornby is a one-trick pony. Reading this book while riding the subway back and forth for two days during the blizzard in New York, Hornby was a warm and personable companion to me. From Brooklyn to Queens and back again on the R train, I was swept up in Hornby’s world of this book leading to that book leading to that purchase of a book he’ll never read but strangely causing him to pick up a different book he’d bought ages ago. I walk away from this slim little volume feeling even more that Nick Hornby is my friend, a guy I’d like to have a beer with and watch soccer, even though I hate soccer. Hornby’s art and his criticism seems to be motivated by a desire for human connection, whether that be through relationships or music or books or whatever. He’s searching for that something that makes us interested in and bound to one another. And for him, reading is one of those acts. I learned a lot about Nick Hornby from The Polysyllabic Spree; surprisingly, however, I learned a lot more about myself and my own feelings about reading. Hornby is not one of these Harold Bloom types, wanting you to revere the great works of Western literature. He simply appreciates books as friends, conversation pieces, little worlds to dive into, whether they be Dickens or Chekhov, sports or science, fiction or poetry, high culture or low. His humanistic populism is refreshing and endearing, making him a great friend to converse with for 152 pages.