Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Reviewing The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is the title of Nick Hornby’s latest book and it is also his term for those who work at the Believer, the people who have commissioned him to write a column for their monthly magazine.

The book is a collection of the twenty-eight articles about the books that Hornby purchased and read over the period from September 2004 to June 2006. Each chapter begins with the designated month, his list of ‘Books Bought’ and often quite a different list of ‘Books Read’. The chapters plot the triumphs and failures as Hornby tries to move books from one list to another, for, as the sub-title explains, this is ‘The Diary of an Occasionally Exasperated But Ever Hopeful Reader’. Part of Hornby’s exasperation stems from the perceived constraints and expectations of the editorial team—‘The Spree’.

Nick Hornby is a writer but he makes it clear that this book is not primarily about writing but about reading—the how and when and why and what of this declining art. He explores the reasons why reading has lost its popularity and in the process pricks the pomposity of the elitist critics, with their lists of the classics or proper books that truly educated people should read. One problem he identifies is the misguided notion that many have got into their heads, “that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work, they’re not doing us any good.”

In a confessional style Hornby admits he is easily bored so his selection of books is broad and varied. Hornby asserts, “I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes.”

Some of the fascinating titles on his lists include, How to Breathe Underwater, How to Stop Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good, How to be Lost and The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. As the cover indicates, this book is a romp that not only charts Hornby’s literary interest levels but gives the permission that might liberate people from the grind of reading. “Turning pages,” the essayist says, “should not be like walking through thick mud.”

The diary installments contain references to events of the last month, from terrorist bombings to the humdrum activities in the Hornby household and the inevitable reports on the progress of Hornby’s obsession, the Arsenal Football club. The references to these ordinary and unpredictable events illustrate how our reading and responses are shaped by the stuff in our lives and the static in our minds. To support his contention about the damaging effects of domesticity Hornby quotes Cyril Connolly in his book, Enemies of Promise: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Hornby’s collection of essays is written in a chatty, freewheeling style. It’s as if Hornby is doing a Google Search, moving at will from one book to the next while making comments on things that intrigued or annoyed him. He has an eye for the zany details. Often books on this paper trail have no relationship to each other although he makes some comparisons and contrasts and at one point he detects a theme and reflects, “I felt for a moment as though certain books were stalking me…” Occasionally Hornby gets serious, as when he lifts the lid on his challenge of raising an autistic child and his dismay in finding only one book on autism that cut the mustard.

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is never ‘sludgy’. It is a rich store of amusing anecdotes, witty quotations, belly-splitting one-liners and brief tasters from some of Nick Hornby’s enjoyable reads. It is best to savor one segment at a sitting and the essays do not need to be read in sequence. It may well release people from so many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ as it is moved by readers from BOOKS BOUGHT to BOOKS READ.

Geoff Pound

Nick Hornby, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, London: Viking, 2006. This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 119.00.