Issue Date: July 1, 2005
Infectiously entertaining essays reflect a bibliophile's passion
Reviewed by JEFF SEVERNS GUNTZEL
Ive never read any of British author Nick Hornbys novels, but Ive picked a few up since reading The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of Mr. Hornbys monthly essays about what hes been reading -- and sometimes what he hasnt been reading -- from the exceptional magazine The Believer.
Books are, lets face it, better than everything else, Mr. Hornby writes in his new book. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go 15 rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See?
Mr. Hornby begins each month with a list in two columns: Books Bought and Books Read.
The list is, predictably, never balanced. Most months, books bought beat books read.
The books hes read spark an infectiously entertaining chain of reflection, confession and hyperbole.
Through Hornbys stream of consciousness reviews we learn a lot about a lot of books, but we also learn a lot about him. Reviewing one book, he talks bluntly about raising his autistic son. Reviewing another: why you might consider encouraging your kids to smoke (he makes perfect sense).
The completion of a Dickens novel sends him into a funk. Of the brilliantly eccentric characters, he says, I miss them all. And Chekhovs sappy letters to his lover embarrass him: For Gods sake, pull yourself together, man! Youre a major cultural figure!
Commenting on Gabriel Zaids So Many Books, he quotes the author: The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.
Thats me! Mr. Hornby responds, And you, probably! Thats us! Thousands of unread books! Truly cultured! Look at this months list: Chekhovs letters, Amis letters, Dylan Thomas letters What are the chances of getting through that lot?
Hornbys book lovers explosion leads to another epiphany: With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. Maybe thats not worth the 30-odd quid I blew on those collections of letters, admittedly, but its got to be worth something, right?
Good enough for me. The same night I finished The Pollysyllabic Spree, I headed off to an independent bookstore in my neighborhood, carrying Mr. Hornbys book as a shopping list and feeling fully justified.
Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005
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