Book Review: The Polysyllabic Spree

Every now and again, I read a book that I want to throw at everyone I know or at least a certain demographic of people I know. In this case, I want everyone I know who loves (truly loves) reading to read The Polysyllabic Spree. I’ve first heard about this book from my boss. He often sees me eating lunch with a book and we would exchange notes on what we’re reading. In a course of half a year, he’s mentioned “that book by Nick Hornby about reading” and stresses how I must read it as someone who loves to read. I’m familiar with Nick Hornby and know him as the author of About a Boy and High Fidelity. The final nudge to push me to action was an email correspondence with book worm, Vishy, who gave me the title of this collection of essays, The Polysyllabic Spree. What a lovely title!

Hornby wrote a monthly column in The Believer, a British periodical (newspaper? magazine? I don’t know and don’t really care) where he logged his reading experience. Each column started off with a two columned table, one titled “Books Bought,” and the other “Books Read.” He then detailed his experience of reading what he read, not reading what he bought, why he abandoned books mid-reading, why he bought what he bought, and so forth. The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of these columns. As someone who is always interested in the motivations and neuroses that push us to make the decisions we make, this book satisfied the nosy voyeur in me.

Why I found The Polysyllabic Spree a must-read for readers is that he’s terribly hilarious and relatable. He read and analyzed classics without being pretentious. He was sometimes open and vulnerable, namely in talking about his autistic son. He is a proponent for reading in general and as far as I could tell, wasn’t a reading bigot. Also, you may find some curious reads to add to your to-read list.


I had to stop myself from sharing more excerpts. For such a tiny book, it was packed full with memorable passages.

What happens is that in the process of being raped, the central female character gets her nipple sliced off, and it really upset me. I mean, I know I was supposed to get upset. But I was bothered way beyond function. I was bothered to the extent that I struck up a conversation with the author at periodic intervals thereafter. “Did the nipple really have to go, Pete? Explain to me why. Couldn’t it have just…nearly gone? Or maybe you could have left it alone altogether? I mean come on, man. Her husband has just been brutally murdered. She’s been raped. We get the picture. Leave the nipple alone.

I have complained in this column before about how everyone wants to spoil plots of classics for you. OK, I should have read David Copperfield before, and therefore deserve to be punished. But even the snootiest critic/publisher/whatever must presumably accept that we must all, at some point, read a book for the first time. I know that the only thing brainy people do with their lives is reread great works of fiction, but surely even James Wood and Harold Bloom read before they reread? (Maybe not. Maybe they’ve only ever reread, and that’s what separates them from us. Hats off to them.)

I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. My music is me, too, of course- but as I only really like rock and roll and its mutations, huge chunks of me – my rarely examined operatic streak, for example, are unrepresented in my CD collection. And I don’t have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children.. But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. Maybe that’s not wort the thirty-odd quid I blew on those collections of letters, admittedly, but it’s got to be worth something, right?

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 other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper v. 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….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.

I’ve been trying to write a short story that entails my knowing something about contemporary theories of time-hence Introducing Time-but every time I pick up any kind of book about science I start to cry. This actually inhibits my reading pretty badly, due to not being able to see. I’m OK with time theorists up until, say, St. Augustine, and then I start to panic, and the panic then gives way to actual weeping. By my estimation, I should be able to understand Newton by the time I’m 850 years old-by which time I’ll probably discover that some smartass has invented a new theory, and he’s out of date anyway. The short story should be done some time shortly after that. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, because it’s killing me.

On reading David Copperfield:

For the first time since I’ve been writing this column, the completion of a book has left me feeling bereft: I miss them all. Let’s face it: usually you’re just happy as hell to have chalked another one up on the board, but this last month I’ve been living in this hyperreal world, full of memorable, brilliantly eccentric people, and laughs (I hope you know how funny Dickens is), and proper bendy stories you want to follow. I suspect that it’ll be difficult to read a pared-down, stripped-back, skin-and-bones novel for a while.

Books I Added to my “To-Read” List After Reading Polysyllabic Spree

So Many Books – Gabriel Zaid
Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby
Franny and Zooey – J.D. Salinger
How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer


P.S. Please consider using the book links to purchase books from Amazon. Not only is Amazon usually cheaper but I earn a measly referral fee. ;)

P.P.S. I reviewed another book by Hornby. Click here to read review of A Long Way Down.