The Polysyllabic Spree
by Nick Hornby
San Francisco: Believer Books, 2004.
When I grow up, I want to be Nick Hornby.
This is not just because I covet his old post at The Believer, where he wrote a monthly column called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”
I want to write like he does about books. He is thoroughly engaging, and he has the perfect mix of erudition, humour and iconoclasm. He makes it seem so effortless, yet each column is a beautifully polished essay. “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” begins with a list of books bought and books read, and the column addresses the gaps between the two and the substance of the latter. The mark of excellence of his work is how well his discussions of the quotidian details of the books he has read serve as scaffolding for broader discussions.
Owing to a spell of a myopic choice of reading material, I discovered Nick Hornby late, but—Oh! Felix culpa!—the delay meant that I discovered him after his tenure at The Believer, so I was able to read all three volumes of his collected columns in one week.
The Polysyllabic Spree is the first collection, and in it, Hornby establishes his conceit: Books Bought are how we attempt to impress others, how we want to be judged; Books Read is who we are when no-one is looking. He says that when he meets 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 …. And if you let me in, I’m going to prove it, honest.’”
Of course, he’s made his private list public, and it’s that confessional tone that he pulls off so dexterously. I am constantly amazed at how well he brings in aspects of the personal. “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” is, of course, so much more than that.
Here he is on another book about books, Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books:
Zaid’s finest moment … comes in his second paragraph, when he says that “the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.”
That’s me! And you, probably! That’s us! “Thousands of unread books”! “Truly cultured”! Look at this month’s list: Chekhov’s letters, Amis’s letters, Dylan Thomas’s letters … What are the chances of getting through that lot? I’ve started on the Chekhov, but the Amis and Dylan Thomas have been put straight into their permanent home on the shelves, rather than into any sort of temporary pending pile. … But as I was finding a home for them in the Arts and Lit non-fiction section (I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey), I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. … With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.
(Note to self: it was when I adopted his format for recording my book-buying and reading that I realized that I immediately had to curtail the number of books I buy, which I did, a mere six months later. This quotation is not a license to buy.)
(Note to reader: There are feel-good bonus points for buying The Polysyllabic Spree. All proceeds go to two children’s charities.)