More on The Polysyllabic Spree

So I finished Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree yesterday, just as I thought I might. The weather never did get nice enough to go on a bike ride, although The Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I did go on a hour-long walk in the rain at our local woodsy park. After that, it was nice to come home and take a warm shower and stay indoors for most of the rest of the day.

I thought the book was a lot of fun. It’s rather addictive; I’d finish a chapter and consider moving on to something else or drifting off to sleep, but then I’d look at the list of books read and books bought that begins the next chapter, and I’d think, oh, just one more. Next thing I knew, the book was finished. Hornby’s attitude toward books is infectious. I like how he reads all kinds of different stuff; he writes just as well and just as enthusiastically about a collection of Chekhov’s letters as he does about, say, Mystic River.

There were a couple things that bugged me. He has a bit of an attitude about the “literary novel”; he reads them and reads them happily, but he picks on them an awful lot, to the extent that I began to wonder why, and I also began to wonder if it’s really so clear just what the “literary novel” is. Is it really a clearly-defined category? When talking about Chris Coake’s book of short stories We’re in Trouble he says this:

Sometimes, when you’re reading the stories, you forget to breathe, which probably means that you read them with more speed than the writer intended. Are they literary? They’re beautifully written, and they have bottom, but they’re never dull, and they all contain striking and dramatic narrative ideas. And Coake never draws attention to his own art and language; he wants you to look at his people, not listen to his voice. So they’re literary in the sense that they’re serious, and will probably be nominated for prizes, but they’re unliterary in the sense that they could end up mattering to people.

Now this strikes me as unfair. Why should the “literary” be that which doesn’t matter to people? I think he’s got too much invested in this idea of the literary and that he too easily categorizes and dismisses books based on their supposedly “literary” qualities and readers based on their devotion to those qualities, whatever they are. I’m not sure most readers actually read with this category in mind.

Hornby plays around with Hemingwayesque, hyper-masculine posturing about books and writing a little too much for my taste. Books are always in a battle with other books or with other forms of art. This is what’s on the book jacket; it’s quite funny — but also … eh, not my thing:

Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute vs. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper vs. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception — Blonde on Blonde might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire’s chances against Citizen Kane. And every now and then you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature twenty-nine times out of thirty.

This is clever, but after a couple of passages about fights among books and the degree of strength or wussiness it requires to write, I start to feel a little alienated. What saves it for me is that Hornby is not actually taking any of it seriously; he’s mocking himself a bit, pretty much admitting he’s not very good at the Hemingwayesque, hyper-masculine stuff.

I didn’t come away with a lot of new books I want to read, although I did pick up a couple of recommendations. One is Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books; I remember Jenny D. has an intriguing post on it. The other is Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey. This seems like a very interesting mix of literary criticism and personal narrative, a combination I like very much.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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