May 7, 2008

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree collects Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns, published between September 2003 and June 2006 in the magazine The Believer. This edition contains both The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. Somehow I didn’t realize this at first, and as I was reading it I was thinking happily that I’d order Housekeeping vs. The Dirt as soon as I was done. I was dismayed when I realized that there’d be no more to read after this. And please don’t ask me what I thought the word “complete” was doing in the title. I can be dim like that sometimes.

Within five pages of having started the book, I realized the following with much joy: Nick Hornby is one of us! He buys lots and lots of books! He makes lists of what he bought and of what he read each month! He comes up with excuses to justify his addiction! He’s unpretentious and honest and genuinely enthusiastic about books! He believes in reading for enjoyment! He’d much rather write about books he enjoyed than about books that didn’t work for him!

I think that after such an indecent amount of exclamation marks I barely need to say that I absolutely loved this book. Nick Hornby is not only unpretentious and enthusiastic, but he’s also really, really funny. I love his sense of humour, and there were several passages in the book that made me laugh out loud.

Just the other day, Michelle said in a comment that she likes reading book blogs because she gets to read more than just book reviews – people also describe what the reading experience was like for them. This is pretty much what is done in The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. Another thing I loved was the fact that the book contains excerpts from some of the novels Nick Hornby writes about. Including Persepolis! Isn’t it fortunate that my copy came in the mail the very day I finished this book?

Here are some of my favourite passages:
I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. (…) 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.

Luckacs’s book is completely gripping, clear and informative and it corroborates a theory I’ve been developing recently: the less there is to say about something, the more opaque the writing tends to be. In other words, you hardly ever come across an unreadable book on World War II, but pick up a book on, I don’t know, the films of Russ Meyer, and you’ll be rereading the same impossible sentence about poststructuralism auteurism three hundred times. People have to overcompensate, you see.

If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity – and there are statistics which show that this is by no means assured – then we have to promote the joys of reading, rather than the (dubious) benefits. I would never attempt to dissuade someone from reading a book. But please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you put it down and read something else, just like you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a TV programme.

And please, please stop patronizing those who are reading a book – The Da Vinci Code maybe – because they are enjoying it. For a start, none of us know what kind of an effort this represents for the individual reader. It could be his or her first full-length adult novel; it might be the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has hitherto been mystified by the attraction books exert on others. And anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing.
And now, here’s a list of the books that were added to my wishlist because of Nick Hornby. There were also plenty of others that weren’t added simply because they were already there. He's as bad as you people, really. If he weren't so awesome, I'd be forced to hate him.
  • George and Sam by Charlotte Moore
  • How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
  • Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice
  • How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen
  • We’re in Trouble by Chris Coake
  • Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan (I love Bob Dylan, so I really don’t know why this wasn’t there already)
  • Blood Done Sing My Name by Timothy B. Tyson
  • What Good Are the Arts? by John Carey
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (not the extended edition)
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
  • The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky by Ken Dornstein
  • Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (Tricia helped)

Other blog reviews:
In Spring It is The Dawn (part 2)
Dog Ear Diary (part 2)
Rhinoa's Ramblings (part 1)
Rhinoa's Ramblings (part 2)
The Hidden Side of a Leaf (part 1)
Tripping Towards Lucidity (part 1)
A Striped Armchair (part 1)
Stuff as Dreams are Made On (part 1)
Savvy Verse & Wit
Nothing of Importance
Life in the Thumb (part 1)
Stainless Steel Droppings (part 1)
Cynical Optimism (part 1)

If you've also reviewed this one, please let me know and I'll add you to this list.


  1. Yay another person who has been turned on to Nick Hornby. I loved this book (I got the complete edition as well for my collection because I am sad like that). It was this book that turned me on to Persepolis and then Mariel raved about it as well. Funnily enough I bought George and Sam for my dad's wife and How Mumbo Jumbo etc for Alex. I think they both really enjoyed their books, Alex says it was good but not something that will last for a long period as it is very rooted in the present and the 80s polities. It did raise some very valid points and he recommends it!

    I want to read a few more that are on your list as well. My parents both love Bob Dylan and I really must learn more about him.

  2. I already love this book! I suspected somehow that I'd like Nick Hornby even if I never read any of his books because I've seen the films "High fidelity" and "About a boy" and liked them. But this sounds like great fun, I'll be looking for it. Thanks!"

  3. First Bybee, and now you *sigh* I will have to get this for my birthday ( less than 2 weeks now!!) I can't stand it, I could put off one rave review, but it was top of my list anyway, since I heart Nick to begin with (being an Arsenal fan etc).....I'll let you know when I get it! and great, great review, Nymeth. I think you should provide a course on how to give book reviews!!!
    I will start An Enchanted Castle tomorrow, hopefully finish it too. I didn't forget!!! :-)

  4. I'm feeling the pressure now! It's an easy read, I hope you'll like it. :)

  5. I've never read anything by Nick Hornby, but I know I should since everyone is raving about his books!!! ;P

  6. How odd - my friend was just telling me about this book a few days ago. Hornby's like a booklogger, just in book-form, isn't he?

  7. Excellent review, Nymeth! I particularly love the quotations you selected. I haven't read anything by Hornby, but I really must pick up this book. Thanks!

  8. I've read at least two books by Hornby and they're both enjoyable reads but I never got around to getting this one. I think I should. Hahaha! This is a lovely review yet again.

    Oh, and you'll definitely enjoy Freakonomics. I mean, I myself don't get numbers and economics most of the times but that book simply was like reading another perspective on life from a rogue economist's point of view. Or something to that effect.

  9. I've never read anything by Hornby, but I already sort of wanted to try this book out. Now I really, really, really want to read it! Sounds like it will go a long way to making us feel good about our addiction, huh?

    I didn't know you were a Dylan fan...I thought only old people like me loved Bob Dylan! :)

  10. I am putting this book on my list of books to Mooch

  11. What a Great review!!
    ...and you're right - he IS one of us!!
    This is one of my favorite books about books (and the reading experience as a whole) - I'm so glad you liked it!!
    ...I can't seem to stop using exclamation points, sorry!!

  12. If he is one of us then I have to read this. I haven't read any of his stuff before. Great review Nymeth, you make this sound like a must read.

  13. I loved these two titles as well! Didn't know they'd been combined into one. (I liked the HOusekeeping vs Dirt title better). HOrnby has a way of adding to my TBR as well. Fond fellow bookworm.

  14. Rhinoa: lol! You're not sad, I'm sure Nick Hornby would be proud :P You do need to learn more about Dylan!

    Valentina: Those movies are good, but as usual the books are even better! So yeah, read him :P

    Susan: I must find Bybee's review and link to it. There are several references to Arsenal in this book! I'm sure you'll love it. I'm afraid I'm behind on The Enchanted Castle. Yesterday and today weren't very good day and I actually fell asleep on my book! That never happens to me. But I am enjoying it so far and tomorrow I'll catch up.

    Tricia: Don't worry, if I don't like it I will blame Nick Hornby and not you :P

    Melody: I do think you'll enjoy his books :)

    Dark Orpheus: He really is. Reading the book was very much like reading a favourite blog.

    Darla: Aren't those great? And there were others I wanted to include as well, but if I did the post would be neverending. You'll enjoy this book for sure!

    Lightheaded: You should indeed :P I really must look into Freakonomics.

    Debi: Yup! The only think Hornby doesn't do is join reading challenges :P But he is very much like us all the same. I like a lot of "oldies", actually :P Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell and Nico... there's lots of great music from the 60's and 70's. Oh, and you are NOT old!

    Madeleine, I hope you find a copy soon!

    Ken: I must read 31 songs now! And don't apologize...Nick Hornby induces exclamations :P

    Carl, I think you'll enjoy his stuff. I think you mentioned once that About a Boy was one of your favourite movies? You should pick up the book! And this one too, of course.

    Jeane: Housekeeping vs the Dirt is indeed a great title. And yes, he has a way of doing that. His column is still going, so maybe in a few years we'll have another book!

  15. oh wowsers, that looks like a lot of fun.

    and i agree (as i suspect most of us do) with his quote about what our books say about us...!

    and that bit about reading for enjoyment.

    thats whats so nice about our little blogging community, how we all really encourage that - and how theres no snobbery or elitism around it all...

  16. I saw Robinson's Housekeeping on your list. I haven't read it, but I've put it on my tbr list because of an ongoing discussion of this novel on the New York Times Reading Room Blog. It sounds like a really good book.

  17. I must read this book! Your review has sold me on it, Nymeth!

  18. Do try to get a copy of 'How to Breathe Underwater'. I'm very thankful to Hornby for introducing me to it. :)k

  19. JP: I completely agree :) My experience with snobs tells me that most of the time they are people who enjoy being seen with the "right" book more than actually reading...Nick Hornby says something about that in the book as well.

    Lisa: Thanks for the link!

    Literary Feline: I really think you'll enjoy it :)

    Tanabata: I will! It sounds like such a great book.

  20. I'm glad you liked it! I read it and reviewed it ( Well, let me backtrack. I read and reviewed The Polysyllabic Spree only...not Housekeeping vs. Dirt. While I wasn't head over heels for PS, I will still read HvD at some point.

  21. This book was handed to me 1 months ago by a bookseller friend when I was visiting the US and despite the fact that I had never been drawn to Hornby's writing...I LOVED it!

    He manages to discuss all the things that go on in my head with regard to books, and also like me, he is a compulsive buyer of books that he may never read! I had so many recommendations from him, and those of which I have read so far, I have really enjoyed, including Persepolis and How to Breathe Underwater. I have Like a Fiery Elephant, Gilead and Death and the Penguin at home still waiting for me! I do hope they continue to publish his column in book format. And its so refreshing to see an accomplished author having the same obsessions as the rest of us!

  22. Andi: Thanks for the link. I added it to the list :)

    Mariel: I really need to pick up How to Breathe Underwater. Of all his recommendations, it was the one that sounded the most like my sort of thing. I hope they continue to publish books his columns as well! And yes, it was refreshing to see how normal and accessible he was.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.