The Reading Life

John Freeman
4 min read
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Even though as a critic I recommend books for a living by writing about them, my most rewarding experience of praising a novel was not in print but in person. I was sitting in the corner of a bar where I used to go and read at night because you could smoke there. A friend stopped by and asked what I was reading. I described the novel—Monica Ali’s Brick Lane—and told her why it was keeping me up at night. She said, “Hey, that sounds good, I don’t sleep anyway.”

A week later she came in and told me she had not only bought the book but also read it and liked it a lot. She even approved of the ending everyone seems to have problems with. I gave her another recommendation. She bought that and read it, too. Over the next six months I think I cost her about $150, and each time she came in we talked about the book she had just read.

If you’re a person who charges headlong into these kinds of conversations, then Nick Hornby’s chummy new book, The Polysyllabic Spree, is a volume after your heart. Composed over the course of a year and change for The Believer magazine, it is essentially a reading diary that logs and rants about what Hornby was buying and reading and why. Because this is a reading diary, as opposed to a straight book review, Hornby can toss everything that is sacred—but annoyingly fussy—about book reviewing and communicate directly with readers as if he were speaking to us at a holiday party about the books he recently read and loved.

As most readers probably know, Hornby is famous for his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, but he is first and foremost a fanatic, someone who thrives on obsession. His first book was a memoir about being a soccer fan; his best—by my yardstick—was his recent collection of essays on music, Songbook, which McSweeney’s published in 2003 with a nifty CD attached to the hardcover. Like most fanatics, Hornby is terrifically passionate about what he likes, but unlike most fanatics he isn’t going to tell you that you’re an idiot for hearing about something for the first time through him.

The Polysyllabic Spree is written in this spirit. Everything that is typically covert in reviewing books becomes overt in Hornby’s monthly diary of what he bought, shelved and read. He reveals who he knows and how that affects his reading, and confesses how badly he read a book. (Of Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School, he says, “I should have read it in one sitting.”) He even admits to what he gets in the mail for free and what he actually buys, which is important to note in a format like this because books that simply appear on his doorstep have a leg up in getting his attention. He even owns up to hating science books: “[E]very time I pick up any kind of book about science I start to cry.”

Because The Polysyllabic Spree was originally published in The Believer, the magazine Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits started in San Francisco as an alternative to snarky criticism, Hornby keeps the griping to a minimum. Most of his ire is directed at himself: for being such a lazy reader, for not being smart enough to “get it,” for flattering his intellectual ego by buying great big tomes of letters and diaries by highbrow writers he knows he will never read.

In this way, Hornby snatches reading back from the dusty, obligatory lilt of criticism that presumes you have six hours a day to read and a library of knowledge behind you. You can read this little book in 90 minutes, if you’re in a hurry, or you can stretch it out over a few days—like I did—and savor it. Either way, it will give you a remarkable opportunity to spend some time in conversation with a guy who will almost certainly make you go out and buy what he reads.

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