Synopsis: A month by month reflection on one year of Hornby’s personal reading. Not a collection of book reviews, but a review of the reading process.
My Take: I knew I would love this book from the moment I opened Chapter One to see two columns containing separate lists for ‘Books Bought this month’ and for ‘Books Read this month’. It was the first of many moments of self-recognition for a fellow bibliophile. As Hornby rightly observes:
‘When I’m arguing with 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,’ I’ll tell him.
Like Hornby, I am also congenitally unable to control myself in a bookstore. Like Hornby, my wallet is bigger than my bedside table and I end up buying far more books than anyone could possibly get around to reading. And just like Hornby I have an addict’s gift for rationalisation and self-deception. I well recognised Hornby’s desperate justifications throughout ‘The Polysyllabic Spree’ for the amount of money he spent on books during the month:
‘I don’t want anyone writing in to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read. I know that already. I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less. My intentions are good. Anyway, it’s my money. And I’ll bet you do it too.’
I do Nick….
‘I read 55% of the books I bought this month – five and a half out of ten. Two of the unread books, however, are volumes of poetry, and, to my way of thinking, poetry books work more like books of reference: they go up on the shelves straightaway (as opposed to on the bedside table), to be taken down and dipped into every now and again…. So I’m taking the poetry out, and calling it five and a half out of eight – and the Heller I’ve read before, years ago, so that’s six and a half out of eight. I make that 81 ¼%! I am both erudite and financially prudent!’
As am I Nick, as am I. I’ve now limited myself to purchases from second-hand bookstores at half the price of the chains; which means I’m completely justified in buying twice as many books!
Even when Hornby is finally shamed into an admission of guilt (not something that I’ve ever owned up to) he hides it in small print in footnote at the bottom of the page:
‘I bought so many books this month it’s obscene, and I’m not owning up to them all: this is a selection. And to be honest, I’ve been economical with the truth for months now. I keep finding books that I bought, didn’t read and didn’t list’
Obsessive book buying was just one of many aspects of a booklover’s reading experience that Hornby insightfully and amusingly catalogues in “The Polysyllabic Spree”. Hornby totally eschews pretence when recounting his monthly reading – and as such conveys the true experience of reading brilliantly. This is not a book written to pose for the literati. Like the average reader, Hornby freely admits to a periodic lack of motivation for reading since:
‘Reading is a domestic activity and is therefore susceptible to any changes in the domestic environment.’
He similarly admits to struggling to stay interested in overlong books, getting a cheap feeling of satisfaction from knocking off the shorter classics (‘Candide’ was a special favourite at less than 100 pages) and finding “writers’ writers” interminable. All things that I’m sure most readers would own up to if pushed, but wouldn’t want to advertise too widely in the literary community.
This is a book lover’s book written for book lovers. If you love the reading experience, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy.
On the process of knocking off an extra long book:
‘We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and aeroplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes – usually late at night, in bed – he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through twenty or thirty pages, it felt to me as though I’d socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses. Only in the last fifty-odd pages, after I’d landed several of these blows, did old Wilkie show any signs buckling under the assault.
On the natural superiority of books as a cultural form:
‘One of the reasons I wanted to write this column, I think, is because I assumed that the cultural highlight of my month would arrive in book form, and that’s true, for probably eleven months of the year. Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else…. Even if you love movies and music as much as you do books, it’s still, in any given four week period, way, way more likely you’ll find a great book that you haven’t read than a great movie you haven’t seen, or a great album you haven’t heard: the assiduous consumer will eventually exhaust movies and music… the feeling everyone has with literature: that we can’t get through the good novels published in the last six months, let alone those published since publishing began.’