Friday 10 July 2009

50 - 'The Complete Polysyllabic Spree' by Nick Hornby

Hurray! 50 Not Out! (I am now strolling around the room raising my non-existent cricket bat in salute to the equally non-existent crowd; I take this challenge very seriously...). Avoiding the rather obvious choice of 'War and Peace' to bring up the milestone (too cliched. And long.), I thought it would be fun to use the milestone to think about what I've learned this year by reading Nick Hornby's collection of magazine columns, 'The Complete Polysyllabic Spree', and finding out what old Nick feels about this reviewing lark.

You see, despite being touted as review columns, Hornby's pieces have just as much to do with him and the whole idea of reading, writing and reviewing as with talking about any particular book. Which was a blessing as, to tell you the truth (and I'm nothing if not truthful - O.K., slight fib), I didn't really love this book as much as I thought, or hoped, I would. One of the problems was that the columns were aimed at an American audience and dealt with a host of books which I'd never heard of and which didn't really sound that interesting. I know I can't expect authors to write books with me in mind (although I'm hopeful that Haruki Murakami will get back to me about the pitch I sent him involving cats, wells, loneliness and my local football team), but I struggled to stay interested in his brief descriptions of novels he picked up whilst on book tours in small-town USA.

Now the stuff about writing, that I could relate to. In the introduction, Hornby talks about the effect taking on a book review column had on his literary intake, noting that where before he would take time out between books and read newspapers and magazines instead, he now felt compelled to close one book and open the next in the same action (which is a very cool trick if you can pull it off. I tried it, but I just ended up with two books face down on the floor). In addition, because of the happy-happy joy-joy nature of the magazine, which prohibited any kind of slagging off of books (apparently there are already enough literary reviews which specialise in crushing writers' confidence), Hornby was encouraged to only read books he was 100% sure he'd love - if he hated them, he couldn't actually mention the name of the book, or the author, in his column...

Those of you with long memories, or an ability to spot hyperlinks, may recall that the reason I started this blog was linked to taking on the Fifty-Book Challenge, and one result of that challenge has been that I've been reading like mad all year. I now find it hard to imagine a stage of being between books, a sort of literary inter-regnum (inter-librum?); to misquote the Royal Family's announcement, "The book is dead. Long live the book!". The fact that I have a full-time job, a part-time Master's course, a hyper-active (but loveable) two-year-old daughter and a long-suffering wife (who now says the word 'blogging' with the contempt you'd usually bestow on infamous war criminals) has not managed to come between me and a good book. Or 50.

Another issue with writing is (and this may come as a big shock to some people) that other people out there in the vast space that is the world-wide interweb thingy actually take the time to read what you write. And then hate you for it. Just as Mr. Hornby has had to bite his tongue on the orders of the (wholly fictional) massed ranks of the Polysyllabic Spree, so too have I had to think twice about what I want to say in case I offend someone who happens to stumble across my blog. This is especially important because I am essentially a product of my culture and my upbringing, something which helps to style my reviews, and many of the people who read my amateurish waffle are not (actually, that covers pretty much everyone apart from my brother and sister). That is to say, it's incredibly easy to offend someone without even trying. And that really concerns me. I really would like to know when I'm offending someone; it makes life much easier.

Of course, the most worrying thought I had while reading 'The Spree' was that if Hornby, one of my favourite writers, was capable of losing me for good parts of his writing, how could I expect to hold the interest of anyone outside my immediate family (and some of them are already a lost cause)? Do other people really care about what I'm reading? If so, why? A while back I read Kafka's 'Der Prozess' (The Trial), and I spent hours on an elaborate parody of a Kafkaesque situation in lieu of a formal review. Having applied the final touches, I sat back and waited for the comments to roll in. Ten minutes later, I remembered to publish it and went away to do something more useful instead. A week later, crushed and licking my wounds, I got on with my life, having seen my most painstaking effort at a piece of writing ever simply ignored by the whole world. Six-and-a-half-billion people; not even my wife read it.

Naturally, now I realise that:
a) Only about 12 people know my blog exists.
b) Very few of those people will have read the book.
c) Why would anyone read a book review which tells the uninitiated absolutely nothing about the book, or the author, which can be deciphered without a specialised university course?
d) It probably wasn't anywhere near as good as I thought. Now, that really hurts.

So, yes, hurray for me, 50 not out and all that. However, as the imaginary crowd settles back into its collective seat, and I get ready to face the next book, I have to start thinking about the blog and my insatiable reading drive. Why am I really doing this? What is possessing me to spend as much of my spare time as humanly possible reading and then scribbling down my responses in blog form?

No, seriously, that was a real question...