On a trip to the East Bay recenly I stopped by the Pub on Solano and, in need of something to read, happened to pick up Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree.1Published in 2004, this is a collection of magazine columns that Hornby wrote where he reported once a month on what books he acquired, what books he read, and what he thought about them.
A tiny leetle lightbulb went on over my head. I have written before about the Great Pile of Unread Books, which is a chronic problem in my house. At the moment it is not the worst it’s ever been, but in addition to the main tower (actually four stacks of roughly equal size, maybe 18 inches tall), there is a separate pile of music books in another room, as well as various little snowdrifts scattered throughout the house.
The problem, of course, is that acquiring a book takes very little time, sometimes mere seconds. Whereas actually reading it — especially when we’re talking about something like the gigantor collections of short stories by Harlan Ellison or J.G. Ballard, or the massive biographies of Albert Einstein and William S. Burroughs that have been mocking me for years now — requires a significant time investment.
The other problem is that what I think I should read and what I actually want to read are constantly at odds. I aspire to be Learned and thus have a tendency to acquire nonfiction that I think will improve me, and that probably actually would if I could make myself read it. And then when I sit down to actually read, I just want something diverting. So the novels get hoovered up and the nonfiction collects dust.
I carry guilt about this and have periodically sworn off acquiring new books until I read the ones I have. Which is a pipe dream. I did feel a bit better when Hornby, on page 124 of TPS, thusly quoted author Gabriel Zaid:
The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.
Which is exciting news! I am not yet truly cultured, but on the way! The future’s so bright, etc.
Anyway: I am going to steal Hornby’s format and write a monthly summary. Do I think this will solve the problem? No, not really, but it can’t hurt. Do I think it will be entertaining to read? I’ll try.
Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree
Dennis Lehane, Mystic River
Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude
Delmore Schwartz, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities
Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle
Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree
Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle
First of all I read The Polysyllabic Spree in its entirety — except for the last chapter, which I am holding onto for when I need that quick blast of self-esteem you get from finishing a book. At 140 breezy pages, TPS feels like an easy victory, and you need those sometimes. It was also inspirational, as witnessed by what you are reading right now. Two of the books on the acquired list are based on Hornby’s recommendations; it’s lucky there weren’t more.
The Little Sister was quality Chandler, thankfully free of the casual racism that makes some of his work hard to deal with. Philip Marlowe is in top form, swilling whiskey, turning phrases, and doing the right thing despite himself. Here’s a paragraph that I made a note of:
I nodded and went out. There are days like that. Everybody you meet is a dope. You begin to look at yourself in the glass and wonder.
KT and I read Hound of the Baskervilles aloud, mostly in the car. We’ve been working our way through the Sherlock Homes canon for a while and had just finished “The Final Problem,” the 1893 story where Sir Arthur tried to kill off the great detective. Sez yer Wikipedia:
The reaction of the public surprised Doyle very much. Distressed readers wrote anguished letters to The Strand Magazine, which suffered a terrible blow when 20,000 people cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine in protest. Conan Doyle himself received many protest letters, and one lady even began her letter with “You brute.” Legend has it that Londoners were so distraught upon hearing the news of Holmes’s death that they wore black armbands in mourning.
Doyle held out for eight years before writing The Hound, which is a stand-alone story that does not address Holmes’ apparent demise. So to us he is still in limbo, though the next section of the big anthology is entitled “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.”
Klara and the Sun is my third Ishiguro, and so far my favorite. It’s an elegant and thought-provoking piece of work, the kind of book you want to pace yourself through. Also, due to the title character’s preoccupation with the sun, I’ve been reading it only outside on sunny days, which have been at a premium. I’ve made it about 2/3 of the way and am in no great hurry to finish, both because I’m enjoying it and because endings have been a weakness in the other Ishiguros.
Somewhere or other I had read or heard something about Jeannette Walls that caused me to make a note to seek out her work, then lo and behold, The Glass Castle appeared in the free box at my favorite cafe. It’s a memoir and a jam-packed one; I’m 120 pages in, she’s just turned 10, and already her life has been many times more exciting than mine. Her parents are Characters in the classic sense, larger than life and quite insane. Here’s a semi-random excerpt from the chapter I just read:
Dad leaned back. “A knife fight, eh?” He grinned. “Okay, if that’s what you want.” He picked up a knife, too, tossing it from hand to hand. Then he knocked the knife out of Mom’s hand, dropped his own knife, and wrestled her to the floor. We kids pounded on Dad’s back and begged him to stop, but he ignored us. At last, he pinned Mom’s hands behind her head.
“Rose Mary, you’re one hell of a woman,” Dad said. Mom told him he was a stinking rotten drunk. “Yeah, but you love this old drunk, don’t you?” Dad said. Mom at first said no, she didn’t, but Dad kept asking her again and again, and when she finally said yes, the fight disappeared from both of them. Vanished as if it had never existed. Dad started laughing and hugging Mom, who was laughing and hugging him. It was as if they were so happy they hadn’t killed each other that they had fallen in love all over again.
Let’s see, looking over the list, that leaves only the Saunders, which was a re-read (though I remembered it not at all). Early Saunders can be a little repetitious but never fails to entertain in its cringeworthy way. I’m overdue to catch up on his latest stuff; while I was trying to psych myself up for A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, he went and published a new book of stories, Liberation Day. So that’s more for Future Self to cope with; Today Self is going to click Publish and call this a win.
when you listen to an audio book, what do you say? I am listening or I am reading or some other approximation? I’m torn; saying I’m reading feels disingenuous, but saying I’m listening doesn’t imply the same intake of information.
We had a long discussion about this over breakfast today and reached no satisfying conclusion. KT thinks I’m a snob to say you shouldn’t say “reading” and she’s probably right. “Listening” doesn’t feel quite right either. Maybe there’s a good word for it in German?
You are an inspiration. I may finally finish “Klara …”