The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
Nick Hornby

This is the first work of literary criticism I’ve ever read, and after reading this I can’t see what everyone complains about. This wasn’t dry, inaccessible or self-involved at all. Well, actually, it was pretty self-involved, but in a highly engaging way.

Unlike some of my friends, I am something of a Nick Hornby fan. Yes, his books are very light, but he finds wells of depth in that lightness. Yes, he writes female characters pretty appallingly, but he does write sensitive, deeply flawed, but ultimately likeable male characters very well: they are weak, uncertain, confused, human. As an intelligent, sensitive, non-macho male I find that there aren’t many characters I can identify with. I can identify with Hornby’s, and hence I enjoy his books.

For two and and a bit years, starting in 2003 Nick Hornby wrote a kind-of-book-review column for the US literary magazine, The Believer, who I am glad to see are still around. The Believer is affliated in someway I do not fully comprehend with the consistently brilliant McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Anyway, Hornby’s column was called ‘What I’m Reading’, or words to that affect and was just a description of the books he’d read in the past month, that’s all. There was one further wrinkle: The Believer has a firm ‘no slagging’ rule. Works discussed in the Believer must be described positively, if you wanted to attack something there are plenty of other forums, all other forums in fact, but in the Believer artists would find somewhere safe.

Living in a cultural backwater, I haven’t encountered this magazine, but I’m looking now.

This rule apparently caused Hornby some trouble at first, until he settled on the technique of not naming or identifying books that he didn’t like. But, he also became careful about what he read, and his relationship with the books he did read. By being more careful, he ended up enjoying most of the books he read. There aren’t actually that many unidentified books in the end. By analysing his relationship more carefully he can identify when he didn’t like a book because of something in himself. His ill-fated experiment with reading sci-fi is a great example of this.

Beyond all that background, this is the collected diary over 28 months of the reading adventures of someone who deeply loves books and reading. And it is a mightily positive ride. This is a book to re-discover your love of reading by. If you’ve been burned by something bad recently pick this up and read a couple of months to re-discover your love. And if your tastes happen to match Hornby’s you’ll likely get some very good recommendations. Coincidentally, I read one of his more liked books shortly after reading this and it has been one of the best books I’ve ever read. More on that in a later post.

This has been one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read: it’s hilarious, engaging and surprisingly moving at times. I read it at a difficult time, it was a great escape and a very nice reminder of the things in life that are to be savoured and enjoyed.

I’ve been raving about and recommending it since. Count this as more in that vein. In a very trite turn of phrase, if you love books, you’ll love this.