In addition to Alice Munro’s Runaway, I recently began Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree, and I’m enjoying it immensely. I remember other bloggers writing about this book enthusiastically, and I couldn’t resist. Apparently books about books are what I need these days; I’m reading this book shortly after Sara Nelson’s So Many Books — although I think I’ll like Hornby’s book better. Books about books are good during times of stress I think — they are usually fairly light reading, they make good company, and they keep me thinking about things I’ll read when I have more time.
Hornby organizes his book into chapters that cover one month’s reading. For each month, he begins with a list of books bought and books read, and then he discusses those books for a few pages, not in a whole lot of depth, but very amusingly. Somehow he manages to say substantive things in very short chapters, so that I don’t feel he’s rushing through his book discussions but I don’t get bogged down in details either. Sara Nelson’s book had a similar format, short chapters covering her reading over a certain period of time, but I finished her book feeling that the tone was too breezy and that she hadn’t really said all that much. Hornby doesn’t go into depth, but somehow he captures the essence of his response to a book in a way that’s both succint and satisfying. I’m not sure how else to account for why I liked one book and not the other except to say that it might just be a personality thing. In these books, personality is everything.
Side note — I feel a little bad picking on Sara Nelson in the way that I have over a few posts now. Just recently, Kimbofo had a post asking people if they review books they don’t like. I do. I believe it’s important to think about what doesn’t work in a book and why, and I think such analysis makes book talk everywhere stronger and more interesting. But I do still feel a little bad.
An excerpt from Hornby on rereading and on forgetting:
I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality. (I recently discovered that a friend who was rereading Bleak House had done no other Dickens apart from Barnaby Rudge. That’s just weird. I shamed and nagged him into picking up Great Expectations instead.) But when I tried to recall anything about [Stop-Time by Frank Conroy] other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather? Or was that This Boy’s Life? And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of, say, fifteen and forty, I haven’t even read the books I think I’ve read. I can’t tell you how depressing this is. What’s the fucking point?
It’s both depressing and it’s true — it’s true for me certainly; my memory of what I’ve read can be so bad. And here’s Hornby doing the numbers on what he’s read:
I read 55 percent of the books I bought this month — five and a half out of ten. Two of the unread books, however, are volumes of poetry, and, to my way of thinking, poetry books work more like books of reference: They go up on the shelves straight away (as opposed to onto the bedside table), to be taken down and dipped into every now and again … And anyway, anyone who is even contemplating ploughing straight through over a thousand pages of [Robert] Lowell’s poetry clearly needs a cable TV subscription, or maybe even some friends, a relationship, and a job. So if it’s OK with you, I’m taking the poetry out, and calling it five and a half out of eight — and the Heller I’ve read before, years ago, so that’s six and a half out of eight. I make that 81 1/4 percent! I am both erudite and financially prudent!
I suppose one reason I’m liking the book is that I often think this way myself — maybe without the humor, but certainly with the obsession.