Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and About a Boy, shares his unique perspective and sense of humor in a monthly column about books for McSweeney’s Believer magazine. The Polysyllabic Spree collects fourteen months of “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” for those who may have missed these gems the first time around.
Hornby begins each essay with a list of the books he bought that month and a list of the books he actually read that month. If you’ve ever felt slightly guilty about the number of books you own that you’ve never read, you’re in good company with Hornby. But he offers some explanations for this phenomenon. For instance, “poetry books work more like books of reference: They go up on the shelves straight away…(And before any outraged poets explode, I’d like to point out that I’m one of the seventy-three people in the world who buys poetry.)”
There’s something a little forbidding about the idea of an author expounding on the books he’s enjoyed over the past month. What if he only reads high-minded works of literature? But Hornby is a reader for every man. He enjoys a little bit of everything from sports-minded non-fiction to a collection of Chekhov’s letters. For added depth, the publishers have also included excerpts from a few of the books Hornby mentions in his essays. So, after reading about a passage in David Copperfield that he particularly enjoyed, you can read the scene yourself. The author discusses his reading so engagingly that you’re sure to find yourself with a few new books on your “must-read” list after reading The Polysyllabic Spree.
The one downside to Hornby’s essays is that as much as he tries to avoid being the stereotypical snooty literary critic, there are many references that can simply go over a reader’s head. Some come as a result of living in England and others from simply being more hip than the average person who doesn’t subscribe to Believer. For instance, the title itself is a joke on the Polyphonic Spree, a band that is more of a musical collective, wearing robes and displaying a certain hippie aesthetic. When Hornby is asked to meet with the editorial board of the magazine, he dubs them the Polysyllabic Spree and drops the occasional comment about white robes and free love.
But even when he delves into unfamiliar territory, Hornby’s light touch and humor will keep you with him. In fact, sometimes, he is even quite direct about the fact that most readers won’t understand his frame of reference, such as when he reads a book about cricket. He rationalizes, “I know you’re not going to read it. But let’s say I’ve read it on your behalf, and we’ve all enjoyed it.” If you’re a fan of Nick Hornby’s work or just a fan of books and reading, don’t let someone else read this book on your behalf; enjoy it for yourself.