I picked this book up because I greatly enjoyed Hornby's first novel High Fidelity. I've read several other Hornby novels since then, but none of them have captured the greatness of High Fidelity; at least in my opinion. So needless to say I wasn't going in to this book with very high expectations.
But I'm happy to say that I was pleasantly pleased with this book.
The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of Hornby columns from when he wrote for a magazine in the UK. The premise of each essay, and indeed the book, is that Hornby was writing about his constant battle to read as many books as he bought. But it would seem that the tide of books bought and/or given to him continually won out over the volume of books he was able to read. A pain I know all to well since there always seems to be more books than I'm capable of reading.
What I liked about the series of essays is that Hornby did a good job of explaining why he read the books he did, and why he abandoned (or didn't like) the books he did. And of course he managed to do it with his trademark humour.
Nick Horby isn't afraid to be real. A collection of fourteen months of his essays from Believer magazine, The Polysyllabic Spree is honest, smart, and down to earth. Every month he lists what he bought, what he read, and every month the list of what he bought outgrows his reading despite steady efforts, only occasionally thrown off by things like getting caught up in football matches, or his children. Any regular reader knows there's always a crowded bookshelf waiting, even as books we loved fade from memory and cry out to be read again ("But when I tried to recall anything about it other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather?"). And as Hornby acknowledges later "Boredom and, very occasionally, despair are part of the reading life." So why do we bother, and why do we do the work?
The answers are, I think, pretty straightforward. The books we've forgotten still made an impression on us, settled somewhere in the corners of our minds like, um, mold. And why do the work? We do the work for the rewards, and Hornby knows that too. He puts a logical, personal weight into these mini-reviews, giving the reader solid reasons to read (or consider leaving aside) a book. A book of stories strikes a good balance for being "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." Or, "We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they're badly read, too." It's as unpretentious and straightforward as a friend's advice in a pub, so it gathers a little of that trustworthiness as well.