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Book review: <i>The Polysyllabic Spree</i> by Nick Hornby

If this was a CD, it would be a limited edition compilation of new music selected by Badly Drawn Boy, given away free to reviewers.


A nice modern design with a patchwork silhouette of a head made of differently coloured panels, bearing the name and title of this book but also those of the better-known titles discussed inside.

The Plot

Hornby declares his intent early on: these are essentially book reviews (originally serialised in the monthly US mag Believer) written as subjectively as they were read—overlapping, emotionally coloured, with each title existing not in some theoretical critical vacuum but rather an element of the reviewer’s life, affecting him as his mood affects it, and affected by the other text still fresh in his mind as it will soon affect new input.

Hornby tallies the titles at the end of each month in two columns: Books bought, and Books read, thereby also adding intent and pleasure to the mix. Oh, and there’s one further condition. Policy at the Believer runs thusly: there will be no negative reviews, specifically no tearing down of other writers. Hornby sidesteps this occasionally by leaving things anonymous, or by being as neutral and “it’s not you, it’s me” as possible, usually when telling us why he abandoned a book, but in general it’s a very positive affair.

The Good

I admit that the initial realisation there wouldn’t be a single satisfying pay-out in the whole book made me a little trepidatious. I quickly realised the hypocrisy of this, however—a number of overly negative pieces of writing have bored me lately, for a start, and also, of course, there’s absolutely no reason why a positive review can’t be a wholly enjoyable thing—why else do people look at the ones for a product they already own? (yes, to have their tastes validated, but the point still stands, dammit!)

Hornby’s style is conversational, casual, intelligent and occasionally funny (you can tell when he’s in a good mood, basically), but so is that of many other reviewers you could find on the internet in five minutes (who would probably share your tastes more closely). There’s not a lot else to say about this. It gave me one or two new authors to try, and there is a certain insight Hornby brings to the picture (more to do with him being a writer who’s part of a coterie of other writers than with any revolutionary reviewing technique, I think).

The most interesting idea in the book (and perhaps the one which spawned it—he hints at this) is the one whereby one’s reading habits form an unconscious and/or synchronicitous pattern, leading one to the next like stepping stones over a stream we can barely comprehend. The chapter involving Motley Crue’s biography is a genuinely funny example of this—it simultaneously, involuntarily taints and tints the works which follows, and then (by inference) will affect the selection of the ones that follow them, by which time its sensations will have left the forefront of the mind, but moved to less obvious, but in some ways more influential, areas of the mind.

The chapter excerpts from some of the more interesting books are a great idea too. I’m not sure how novel an idea this is but I wasn’t expecting it, and it’s a nice surprise—it pads the book, but why would the reader care?

The Bad

Despite his professed intentions, (and occasional examples, as above) this really doesn’t accomplish a great deal to put it above any other book of criticism—in fact, in some ways it actually makes the case for somebody like Clive James, who combines a formidable intelligence with a tasty prose style, and has never displayed any difficulties putting some arbitrary hard line between the objective and the subjective when it comes to critical writing. Hornby never gets much deeper than his thousand amateur rivals, contradicts himself frequently because he isn’t concentrating: a transparent style is best, except when it isn’t; writers who write about writers are self-involved and unhelpfully exclusivist—which may be true—but rarely a month passes when he does not mention a personal friend or relation who is a writer and has sent him a new novel; nobody should struggle through recommended books they aren’t enjoying simply to finish them, he also says, before doing exactly that on several occasions, not to mention spending a lot of money on books that he may never even read which adds a lot of weight to the goals of the strugglers, if you ask me. It’s all very human and understandable, but, as with 31 songs, it’s just totally impossible to escape the fact that only his initial success and cultural cache have given him the license to get away with this level of undercooked self-indulgence.

The book’s title, incidentally, comes from an unfunny recurring joke about the publishers of the believer being a bunch of religious fanatics in white robes, and to which Hornby devotes far too much space, and which in any case is taken from the name of the pop group the Polyphonic spree.

Look, I read all of this, and I share little with the literary tastes of Hornby beyond his own novels, of course. So that’s a positive point. This is a long way from Clive James, but then who isn’t? I had a few laughs, learnt one or two things, but I can’t recommend this with confidence to anyone who’s not a far more enthusiastic Hornby fan than I am.

What I learnt

The names of a couple of books I shall look up later on. And a really disgusting fact about Motley Crue, ha ha.

Oh, and that it is quite possible to write an entertaining book of criticism being barely negative at all.

In short

Title: The Polysyllabic Spree
Author: Nick Hornby
Publisher: McSweeney's, Believer Books
ISBN: 1932416242
Year published: 2004
Pages: 230
Genre(s): Music, Non-fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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