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Issue Date:  July 1, 2005

By Nick Hornby
McSweeney’s, 230 pages, $14
For love of books

Infectiously entertaining essays reflect a bibliophile's passion


I’ve never read any of British author Nick Hornby’s novels, but I’ve picked a few up since reading The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of Mr. Hornby’s monthly essays about what he’s been reading -- and sometimes what he hasn’t been reading -- from the exceptional magazine The Believer.

“Books are, let’s 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 he’s read spark an infectiously entertaining chain of reflection, confession and hyperbole.

Through Hornby’s 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 Chekhov’s sappy letters to his lover embarrass him: “For God’s sake, pull yourself together, man! You’re a major cultural figure!”

Commenting on Gabriel Zaid’s 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.”

“That’s me!” Mr. Hornby responds, “And you, probably! That’s us! ‘Thousands of unread books’! ‘Truly cultured’! Look at this month’s list: Chekhov’s letters, Amis’ letters, Dylan Thomas’ letters … What are the chances of getting through that lot?”

Hornby’s book lover’s 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 that’s not worth the 30-odd quid I blew on those collections of letters, admittedly, but it’s 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. Hornby’s book as a shopping list and feeling fully justified.

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005

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