Don't spit out the chewiest food as it's often the best
Kim V Porcelli enjoys this personal pick of books but is shocked by its advice to avoid the more challenging works of art
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree: The Diary of an Occasionally Exasperated But Ever Hopeful Reader
IN reading, as in life, a sense of adventure is your best friend. It's better to read joyfully, if haphazardly, than to be stuck in some prim, it's-critically-acclaimed, everybody-else-is-reading-it, finish-it-or-no-dessert purgatory where your reading experience is dictated by what you think you should be doing and has piteously little to do with your own curiosity. And so was born the idea for Nick Hornby's The Complete Polysyllabic Spree: The Diary of an Occasionally Exasperated But Ever Hopeful Reader, a kind of antidote to a readers' world usually reigned over by the critics on one side, the best-sellers' list on the other and that old enemy of independent thought, Received Wisdom, everywhere else.
Spree is a collection of essays -- originally published in an American magazine, the Believer, an offshoot of the iterary magazine and publishing house McSweeney's -- that track Hornby's own reading habits over two years. Each essay begins with a list of the books he bought that month, followed by an, inevitably, comically dissimilar list of the books he actually read (with notes made for those left unfinished). As it's a bibliophile's diary and not a book-review collection, Hornby is not restricted to the big reads of the day, or even to new titles: he can finally read old classics, go on the recommendation of a friend, pick things up at the secondhand shop or revisit old favourites. Over his two years writing the column, he covers Dickens and EL Doctorow; the letters of Chekhov and, er, The Dirt, by Motley Crue; poetry and graphic novels and hard-documentary-style non-fiction; books about autism and war and grief and chess and punctuation; and books about books. As a nice touch, we are also given excerpts from some of his favourite reads to sample for ourselves. Spree does indeed read like a diary: it's chatty and meandering and full of personal prejudices, like a one-man book club.
It's a great idea for a column, and for a book. The only problem, for this reader, is that Spree was not written by, say, Truman Capote, or Nick Tosches, or E Annie Proulx, or Will Self. It was written by the author of Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy, and so the degree to which you will like this book is somewhat dictated by whether you are a fan, or whether, like this reader, you have always found him a little paunchy and ideas-light, if well-intentioned, in which case reading Spree can sometimes feel like being on a really great holiday with the wrong person.
This is not least because Hornby can sometimes seem morbidly afraid of aligning himself with the writers and readers of, God forbid, literary fiction, a bias that seems to me to be no fairer or wiser than a blanket distaste for financially successful popular fiction. As most people who read even semi-widely will know, there are gems and stinkers in both camps.
In addition, Hornby advises readers: if you're not having fun reading a book, put it down and go read something else. This is certainly excellent advice for a reader trapped in a passive, eat-your-greens relationship with literature, where he or she buys books out of obligation -- this book is popular, that book is a classic -- and then either drags themselves joylessly to the last page, or abandons ship and feels bad about it. But you have to be very, very careful when you're advising people to leave down books -- or films, or albums, or whatever -- that feel like hard work. Some of the foremost artistic accomplishments of the human race, never mind the best books, fall into this category, or seem to, and it's a little shocking that we are being advised, metaphorically, to eat nothing but crisps for every meal if that's what we think we want. Surely a true sense of adventure -- as distinct from childish petulance, where you spit things out before you've even tasted them -- involves following your interests: following them, sometimes, right out of your comfort zone?
That said, in fairness, the book's funniest chapter involves Hornby gamely attempting to read a science-fiction novel by Iain M Banks on the suggestion/dare of a friend, on the grounds that his reading habits have become too predictable. (He ultimately abandons the book and hurriedly scurries back to his home planet.) And very late in the day, on page 216 (or -- since the chapters first appeared as columns -- about two years in), Hornby finally comes to the following realisation: "I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading Housekeeping [by Marilynne Robinson] I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage." Well, yes.
In any case, though, Spree has, among other things, introduced me to Housekeeping, as well as Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell's book on 19th-century US-presidential murderers; it has reminded me that I wanted to read Chronicles by Bob Dylan; and inspired me to get a collection of Philip Larkin's letters (even though, ahem, Hornby discarded them for their profanity). And for all that, I'm grateful. As with any book club, you don't have to be in love with the participants in order to get something out of it. Just with books.