Reading and readers

ROSLYN rosgross at
Fri Dec 17 22:06:47 EST 2004

I thought people might be interested in this review of Nick Hornby's 
collection of esssays, "Polysyllabic Spree", because it brings up several 
issues that have been discussed on this list.

I should point out that I'm not familiar with Nick Hornby's work, and I 
found the review a little confusing in places--for instance, I find I'm not 
at all sure that I can always distinguish what is Hornby's approach and what 
is the reviewer's. It's not completely clear whether Hornby agreed with his 
magazine's attitude that 'that if it looks like I might not enjoy a book, I 
will abandon it immediately, and not mention it by name.', but I find myself 
agreeing that while it's important for reviewers (or just readers) to be 
honest about what they disliked about a book, it's equally undesirable to be 
too nasty and negative, especially as that is the trend today. The two parts 
of that statement could be reversed to change the emphasis, of course; and 
in fact the reviewer does first discuss the nastiness and then the need to 
be honest. In any case, I find myself agreeing fervently with both sides of 
the statement. I always squirm when I sense that a reviewer of is using the 
occasion of criticising a book to be a sarcastic smart-aleck, because it's 
essentially showing off at the expense of a writer who has gone into the 
difficult enterprise of writing usually in good faith, if not with any 

Another thing that caught my eye is that Hornby has apparently been given 
the freedom by his magazine to write reviews of whatever takes his fancy, 
instead of being demanded to review the latest book before anyone else. And 
then follows the discussion that really delighted me about "the habits that 
bind readers together" and of the felicitous ways people discover the books 
that change their lives or affect them strongly. I chuckled at the sentence 
(which I'm assuming is the reviewer's, not Hornby's), 'The surest way to 
spot a nonreader: someone who comes into your house, looks at your books and 
asks, "Have you read all these?"'

And then there's the issue we've touched on so often here: the concept of 
'literary' fiction and 'classics' and the dichotomy between 'literature' and 
what one really enjoys (is there/should there be a contradiction between the 
two?). 'Saying that "everyone" knows Chekhov is, whether intentionally or 
not, one of those statements guaranteed to make people feel out of it, to 
make them feel that culture is a closed circuit to which they can find no 
point of entry.' If I'm reading the article correctly, that's more or less a 
paraphrase of Hornby's approach.

I love the last sentence: 'What Hornby does so beautifully here is to assume 
the intelligence of his readers, and to obliterate the literature/pleasure 
divide by acting, sensibly, as if it didn't exist. The implicit message of 
these columns is that nothing that is not pleasurable has a right to be 
considered art. It certainly doesn't have a right to your time.'


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