A shorter version of this review was first published on 28th January, 2007 in The Star
By Nick Hornby
Publisher: Penguin Viking, 278 pages
I LOVE spying on people as they browse in bookstores. I pay attention to what the person in front of me at the cashier is buying. I always want to know what my friends and family are reading and what they have blown their allowance/pay packets on at their favourite bookshops.
That’s why I love Nick Hornby’s collection of articles about books. I was thrilled to see, on first flipping through this book, that each chapter begins with two lists: ‘Books Bought’ and ‘Books Read’. If you are a book addict, you’ll know that the two lists don’t always overlap. If you own over a thousand books and you haven’t stopped buying more, it’s unlikely that you will read every book you buy the moment the shrink-wrap comes off.
First of all, there’s the question of mood. You may want to (nay, need to) buy a book on the spot, but, years may pass before you feel like reading it! This is why my bedside table is stacked with books. I’m usually in the middle of at least three at any one time because I never can tell what I’ll feel like reading first thing in the morning or last thing at night.
It’s good to see Nick Hornby publicly identifying with and acknowledging the problem. Not that it really is a problem. It’s only those spoil sports who read maybe half a book every couple of years who see it as such. Their main concern would probably be shelfspace or lack thereof, but if you truly love to read and like owning what you read (or will, one day, so help you God, get around to reading), shelfspace ceases to be an issue. Who needs bookcases when there are other kinds of surfaces that will as readily hold your books? Who says your wardrobe is only for clothes? Or kitchen cabinets are just for crockery? Has it ever occurred to you that there’s a lot of useable space under your bed?
Anyway, if you’re an enthusiastic reader and buyer of books (and if you’re a Hornby fan) you will love The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. It comprises two year’s worth of the author’s column, Stuff I’ve Been Reading, for American literary magazine The Believer, and, besides revealing that Hornby buys a lot of books and reads a lot of books but that the lists don’t necessarily overlap, it also describes the method-in-the-madness way he chooses his reading material; how one book or author leads to another; what makes him want to read more, and what puts him off the activity.
It’s all written in a very chatty style. And at times Hornby also nags and whines, scoffs and simpers. But that’s the book’s greatest charm. You don’t feel intimidated by Hornby. You don’t think, ‘Cor, he’s so widely read, how will I ever catch up?’ and ‘My goodness, that book sounds deep! He must be a clever clogs!’ Hornby is like that friend with whom you go book-hunting on weekends, who sometimes buys books simply because of their cool covers and who’s looked at his copy of Candide for the past seven years and never ever felt the slightest inclination to read it. In short, a perfectly normal, ordinary guy who just happens to like reading.
He does read widely, but he’s guided by curiosity and a desire to have a good time, not worthy reasons like the pursuit of knowledge and the quest for peace. We’ve all been at the mercy of people who stroke their chins and say stuff like, ‘Denise Robbins? What could a book by her possibly teach you?’ Oh, yawn.
I have not learnt a whole lot from Polysyllabic apart from the titles of some books that I might very well enjoy and the fact that Hornby is, like me, the sort of person who panics about silly things like not having something to read (even though they live in a house where there is no where to park your bum because there are stacks of books on all the chairs). He is also the sort of person who might impulsively buy books on obscure subjects like the migration patterns of the peregrine falcon. I am much comforted by this fact as I once bought a book on fly fishing in New England.
Hornby is as funny, wry and sarcastic in Polysyllabic as he is in his novels, but this book is a much more enjoyable and relaxing read than his fiction because whereas his characters are always in the midst of personal crises and trying to come to grips with life, Hornby, the main character, so to speak, of Polysyllabic, is just a man wandering aimlessly through a wonderland of books, rambling on, rather pointlessly, but quite engagingly, about the delights and frustrations of reading. Well, it suits me anyway and I can’t see why anyone who loves books wouldn’t be just as entertained.