Sunday, 11 March 2012

Nick Hornby: The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (2006)

Nick Hornby writes an approximately monthly column for American literary magazine The Believer, entitled Stuff I've Been Reading. The Complete Polysyllabic Spree collects the first three years or so of this column (September 2003 to June 2006), and, even though it is quite a short book, the contents were originally published by the magazine in two smaller volumes; a third has since appeared, according to Wikipedia, so the title is no longer accurate. Not precisely a book review column, Stuff I've Been Reading is basically a short essay about books, themed around whatever Nick Hornby has happened to read (or, in many cases, what he has bought intending to read but hasn't). Its piecemeal nature makes it not as compelling to read in one go as his book on music, 31 Songs, but being Hornby, it is extremely funny and often thought provoking.

I did get tired of the running joke which gives the book its title. Hornby claims that The Believer is run by a cult-like group of individuals in white robes, and names this group the Polysyllabic Spree (a reference, in case you don't know, to the rock group The Polyphonic Spree). The point is that The Believer has a review policy that reviewers should not be overly critical: the point of the journal is to encourage a love of books, not to allow reviewers to make points at the expense of writers. (This is of course paradoxical, making a point at the expense of other literary magazines...)

One of the interesting things to me about The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is just how little my reading and Nick Hornby's reading overlap. I've read a lot, and he's read a lot, but of the hundred or more books discussed here, we have both read fewer than a dozen. Our tastes differ. He has an interest in recent history and political commentary which I don't, while I read a lot of science fiction, a genre which he freely admits is alien to him - he describes reading Iain Banks' Excession, in an attempt to break new ground, but gives up after only a few pages, finding it virtually incomprehensible. (It's probably not an ideal choice as a science fiction starter, being set in an idiosyncratic milieu already well established from the earlier Culture novels, and being written in a way which assumes familiarity which the genre in the reader. Thinking about what he should have read: that's a blog post in itself.) His descriptions have prompted me to look out for three books: Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn (not itself mentioned, but the first of a series which is), Francis Wheen's When Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, and John Carey's What Good Are the Arts?

The biggest problem with The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is that the material in the book was not intended to be read consecutively. It certainly gives the impression that no editing was done to make them fit better into the book format. This means that the overall impression is not as favourable as it would be to reading the columns one at a time, with a month or more separating them, which means that my final rating is 6/10.

Edition: Penguin, 2007
Review number: 1452

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