The Selected Polysyllabic Spree

There was a time in my life between school and today when I thought that I should learn English vocabulary systematically again. The system was easy enough: Pick up a book, write down all the expressions you don’t know, look them up, learn them. Once I tried a book by Nick Hornby (I think it was About a Boy) but gave up after five pages or so. I hadn’t found a single expression I didn’t know.

I concluded that Mr. Hornby simply has a fairly limited vocabulary. He certainly has the simple, colloquial style to go with it, and I assumed that it came naturally to him. (Not that it is to everyone’s liking. Sibylle Berg, who adores Haruki Murakami, once expressed her disappointment with the master’s latest offering by stating that the book in question read “like Murakami rewritten by Nick Hornby”.) The following lines changed this assumption:

I am not particularly interested in language. Or rather, I am interested in what language can do for me, and I spend many hours each day trying to ensure that my prose is as simple as it can possibly be. But I do not wish to produce prose that draws attention to itlself, rather than the world it describes (p. 4)

That’s from Hornby’s The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of monthly columns written for a magazine called the Believer in which Hornby chronicled which books he had read the month before. Rather than a collection of reviews, it is a kind of diary focusing on books (like Fever Pitch is an autobiography focusing on football) which mentions the birth of one of Hornby’s children, his moods, how one book read colours the perception of the next one and lots of other things that influence one’s reading experience but are hardly ever mentioned in a review.

I think it is a magnificent piece of work. It certainly made me want to read more and I would call it something like “humane, funny and wise” if that didn’t sound like one of those review excerpts that you find on the covers of paperbacks. Speaking of which: “I laughed on every page,” one Lloyd Evans of The Spectator is quoted on the cover of the Penguin paperback edition. I daresay that either Mr. Evans is a bloody liar or, if he really laughed on every page, inluding, for example pp. 268-70, then he should see a mental health specialist right away. Funny it is, though. Oh, I already mentioned that.

It is usually hard to give a fair impression of a book by quoting bits from the text, the whole being more than the sum of its parts and all, but I think this one’s an exception. So:

I propose that those intending to write a biography should first go to the National Biography Office to get a permit that tells you the number of pages you get. (There will be no right of appeal.) It’s quite a simple calculation. Nobody wants to read a book longer than – what? nine hundred pages? OK, a thousand, maybe. And you can’t really get the job done in less than 250. So you’re given maximum lenght if you’re doing Dickens, say – someone who hand an enormous cultural impact, wrote enormous books and had a life outside them. And everyone else is calculated using Dickens as a yardstick. By this reckoning, Yates is a three-hundred-page man – maybe 315 tops. (p. 25)
Or, discussing Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, a book about stupidity in the modern world:

Richard Dawkins, Wheen recalls, once pointed out that if an alternative remedy proves to be efficacious – that is to say, if it is shown to have curative properties in rigorous medical trials – then ‘it ceases to be an alternative; it simply becomes medicine’. (p. 60)

Quoting Amos Oz fromHelp Us to Divorce:
‘The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy' (p. 153)
On The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s book about the CIA:
You have probably read those stories of how people in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured by having American pop music blasted at them day and night. And you have probably read or heard many of the jokes made as a consequence of these stories – people writing in to newspapers that if you have a teenager who listens to 50 Cent or Slipknot all day then you know how those Iraqi prisoners feel, etc. and so on. [...] Ronson floats the intriguing notion that the jokes were an integral part of the strategy: in other words, if you can induce your citizen to laugh at torture, then outrage will be much harder to muster. (pp. 179-80)
And, finally, the similarities and differences between Philip Larkin and Thierry Henry:
If, as a recent survey in the UK suggested, most people buy books because like to be seen reading rather than because they actually enjoy it, then I would suggest that you can’t beat a collection of letters by an author – and if that author is a poet, then so much the better. The implication is clear: you know the poet’s work inside out [...] and you now need something else, something that might help to shed some light on some of the more obscure couplets.

So there I am, reading [Philip] Larkin’s letters every chance I get, and impressing the hell out of anyone who sees me doing so. [...] And what I’m actually reading is stuff like this: ‘Katherine Mansfield is a cunt.’ ‘I think this [poem] is really bloody cunting fucking good.’ ‘I have just made up a rhyme: after a particularly good game of rugger / A man called me a bugger / Merely because in a loose scrum / I had my cock up his bum.’ ‘Your letter found me last night when I came in off the piss: in point of fact I had spewed out of a train window and farted in the presence of ladies and generally misbehaved myself.’ And so on.


Every now and again you are reminded forcibly that the ability to write fiction or poetry is not necessarily indicative of a particularly refined intelligence, no matter what we’d like to believe; it’s a freakish talent, like the ability to bend a ball into the top corner of the goal from a thirty-yard free kick, but no one’s interested in reading Thierry Henry’s collected letters – no literary critic, anyway. And Thierry would never call Katherine Mansfield a cunt, not least because he’s a big fan of the early stories. (pp. 219-21)
I think I’ll leave Larkin’s letters on the shelf, then, but Hornby has made me want to read, at minimum, The Pendulum Years by Richard Harris, Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, Clockers by Richard Price, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, Saturday by Ian McEwan (o.k., I was going to read that anyway, but Hornby reminded me), The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson, What Good Are the Arts by John Carey and possibly, should I be feeling trashy, The Dirt by Mötley Crüe. I have a suspicion most won’t be as good as Hornby’s book, though. (9/10)


RC said...

interesting thoguhts...i liked the quote from men who stare at goats.

i find myself torn between novelist like hornby who use simple prose and those who's writing style requires me to engage 100% with the written word to grasp the meanings behind them

monster paperbag said...

McEwan's Saturday is really good. Especially at the end part :).