“Middlemarch in Six!” Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree

This is the first in what I plan as a regular series of re-posts from my archives. It seems appropriate to lead off with a review that was not only one of my earliest posts (it first went up on the blog in January 2007) but one that lays out some of my reasons for blogging in the first place. It is quite interesting (for me, at least) to see how I was thinking about blogging and criticism at the time, and to reflect on how things have changed in my writing life since then. When I wrote this post, I was venturing out of academic writing for the first time and quite uncertain about where my experiment might take me. One of the tasks I set myself, therefore, was to explore “books about books” written for non-academic readers, to find out what they were like and whether I might learn from them about how to write differently, or for a different audience, myself. Hornby’s was one of the first I read, and remains one of the ones I’ve liked the best. I’ve tweaked my review just a little to clarify its timing and reflect changes in the format of Novel Readings.
Another reason I chose to revisit this particular post is that just recently, Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room reviewed The Polysyllabic Spree along with Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind; you can read her very thoughtful review here. It turns out we liked and noticed (and quoted) some of the same things.

hornbyspreeIn addition to the reasons laid out in the introduction to this blog (see ‘About Me,’ above), I wanted to try writing up informal notes on my reading because of my ever-increasing dissatisfaction with the kind of writing about books I am expected to do professionally, namely academic literary criticism. Although I believe that academic criticism has its own kind of interest and value, as an avid reader I often find it frustrating and bizarre when the conversation about a book becomes remote in both form and feeling from the conversation I think the book itself is supposed to be a part of. My own area of academic expertise, for example, is the Victorian novel, and if any one quality could be said to be typical of so many books so widely varying in subject and style, it would be a sense of engagement with the world–not that they aspire to represent it mimetically (any reader of Victorian fiction knows there is nothing naive about what often gets called its ‘realism’), but that these books challenge their readers to think and care about all aspects of social, political, economic, and romantic life. “Dear reader!” Dickens concludes his polemical anti-Utilitarian novel Hard Times. “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be!” And of course his “Let them be!” is a call to action, not to complacency or passivity: let the world be the way you and I can imagine it to be, better, more just, more loving, more humane. But current literary criticism communicates little of this urgency, and none of Dickens’s humour, or, as he would have it, fancy.

My concern is not so much that literary criticism is often written in difficult, obscure prose (after all, every specialization requires its own jargon)–although I have finally achieved the courage and professional security to adopt Nick Hornby’s poetry-reading philosophy for my own reading of criticism and theory (“If something doesn’t give you even a shot at comprehension in the first couple of readings, then my motto is “F–k it” [p. 91, my polite hyphens]). My objection is more that we have distanced ourselves so completely from ordinary conversation about books that we have become irrelevant to all readers but ourselves. Of course, there are some exceptions, academics who have produced the textual equivalents of cross-over albums. But most of us know that when we write and publish even our most supposedly ground-breaking article, it is destined straight for the dustbin of other scholars’ footnotes. Most of us are presumably OK with this result, or there would be a revolution. Or perhaps the necessity of publishing such material to secure and keep our jobs and our professional credibility drives doubts away. But Dickens, to stick with my example (not least because he is one of Hornby’s favourite examples as well), certainly hoped his words had more life in them than that.

All this is by way of saying that I wanted to experiment a little with writing in a different way about books, a way that would reflect my experience of reading them and thinking about them in a more immediate, personal way than academic writing allows without letting go altogether of the analytic habits built up by years of professional training. Surely there can be an informed, educated conversation about literature that allows, for one thing, for judgment, for values, for affect, for liking and disliking. And, of course, there is such a conversation–indeed, there are many such conversations today, just not in the pages of academic journals. One contribution that I have just finished re-reading is Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree.

I first read sections of this book last year, when a graduate student passed it on to me thinking (rightly) that I would enjoy Hornby’s infatuation with David Copperfield (thanks, El!). Since I began thinking about alternatives to academic criticism, partly through my work on 19th-century literary reviewing, I have begun looking for examples of contemporary writing about books that achieves something like the balance I am interested in between analysis and immediacy, and going back to Hornby’s collection this week, I think he gets fairly close. Unlike those in Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, for example, Hornby’s commentaries, though engagingly personal and idiosyncratic, focus primarily on the books and not on himself. He attends to questions of craft, though my academic side wishes he would introduce some technical terms here and there for greater precision, and he thinks about the books in terms of the means they use to their ends while still considering also the value of those goals. For all his breezy style, he has a knack for summary judgments, as when, after recounting a particularly horrific detail from a rape scene in Pete Dexter’s Train, he objects that it seemed to have happened “through a worldview rather than through a narrative inevitability” (97). For me, the great charm of this collection is its combination of these moments of intense literary and moral scrutiny with irreverence and humour. Who says you can’t be both serious and funny? I loved his idea of the “Cultural Fantasy Boxing League” in which, he supposes, “books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. ‘The Magic Flute’ v. MiddlemarchMiddlemarch in six…” (58). Of course!

But Hornby really won me over when he articulated what I think book lovers everywhere feel: the extent to which our own libraries are extensions or reflections of our identities. This is why we recoil from well-intentioned and practical advice to ‘clear some space’ on our existing bookshelves to make room for new purchases! “I suddenly had a little epiphany,” he says, as he files away some volumes: “all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. . . . 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” (125).

2 thoughts on ““Middlemarch in Six!” Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree

  1. litlove March 6, 2013 / 1:38 pm

    I’m so glad you posted this as I wondered what your review of The Polysyllabic Spree was like when you mentioned you’d written one! Also very interesting to see where you were coming from when you began your blog. As a critic, I always felt there was way too much emphasis on liking and disliking and personal judgement, so it was so intriguing to hear you wonder whether there couldn’t be a place for it. Is your feeling, then, that academic literary writing steers away from these things too much? I felt just the same, though, about seriousness and humour. If I made the undergraduates laugh, they certainly recalled the details of the novel we were discussing much more clearly! And anyway, there is so much humour in great literature – I don’t think it would have lasted without it.


    • Rohan March 6, 2013 / 11:48 pm

      I do think that academic writing tends to shy away from liking and disliking, though I often suspect liking (or even loving) lies behind many of the projects academics actually take on. In his book The Death of the Critic, Ronan McDonald made a case for a move back to evaluative criticism: that’s not where I think criticism should necessarily go, since (as my Cormac McCarthy post shows) I still struggle with just how useful it is to use evaluative terms. But there needs to be room for enthusiasm! And also, as you say, for humour. I hope you’re right about students remembering things better if you made them laugh: there’s usually quite a bit of laughter in my classroom (where I am more irreverent and snarky than I usually am here on my blog) so I can hope that it’s pedagogically useful and not just theater.


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