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Book: Polysyllabic Spree

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The premise of this book was too good to pass up: an author I like (Nick Hornby) writing essays for a publisher I like (McSweeneys) about a dilemma I can relate to (the disparity between books bought and books read).

Hornby's voice provided a sympathetic harmony to my own viewpoints on book purchasing, selecting which book to read next, and the unintentional connections one finds. I've often compared selecting which book to read next to wine tasting: you can move freely between the whites, and sometimes you can follow a red wine with an even stronger red wine, but there reaches a saturation point where you can't really discern the taste anymore. For the full-bodied reds I need a good palette cleanser (e.g. Pratchett, Sedaris, King), a bit of mental floss to get the polysyllabic words out of the teeth.

Hornby has a slightly different food comparison (p. 44):

I'm beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. When I read Moneyball, it was because I wanted something quick and light after the 32-oz steak of No Name; The Sirens of Titan wasn't a reaction against George and Sam, but a way of enhancing it. So what's that? Mustard? MSG? A brandy? It went down a treat anyway.

Also, being Hornby, the music comparison was inevitable (p. 101):

There's no rule that says one's reading has to be tonally consistent. I can't help but feel, however, that my reading has been all over the place this month. The Invisible Woman and Y: The Last Man were opposites in just about every way you can imagine; they even had opposite titles. A woman you can't see versus a guy whose mere existence attracts the world's attention. Does this matter? I suspect it might. I was once asked to DJ at a New Yorker party, and the guy who was looking after me (in other words, the guy who was actually playing the records) wouldn't let me choose the music I wanted because he said I wasn't paying enough attention to the beats per minute: according to him, you can't have a differential of more than, I don't know, twenty bpm between records. At the time, I thought this was a stupid idea, but there is a possibility that it might apply to reading. The Invisible Woman is pacy and engrossing, but it's no graphic novel, and reading Tomalin's book after The Last Man was like playing John Lee Hooker after the Chemical Brothers -- in my opinion, John Lee Hooker is the greater artist, but he's in no hurry, is he?

As much fun as I've had finding quotes in Hornby's book, though, in some ways I feel too attached to his opinion to fully enjoy it. It's only appropriate, I think, that I found this quote to express this sentiment (p. 66):

Twice this week I have been sent manuscripts of books that remind their editors, according to their covering letters, of my writing. Like a lot of writers, I can't really stand my own writing, in the same way that I don't really like my own cooking. And, just as when I go out to eat, I tend not to order my signature dish -- an overcooked and overspiced meat-stewy thing containing something inappropriate, like tinned peaches, and a side order of undercooked and flavorless vegetables -- I really don't wan tot read anything that I could have come up with at my own computer.

disclaimer: in no way do I think I could produce Hornby's writing, but for me the same applies to ideological agreement as literary agreement.

More quotes in the extended.

p. 125

...I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. My music is me, too, of course -- but as I only really like rock and roll and its mutations, huge chunks of me -- my rarely examined operatic streak, for example -- are unrepresented in my CD collection. And I don't have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children.. But 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. Maybe that's no worth the thirty-odd quid I blew on those collections of letters, admittedly, but it's got to be worth something, right?

p. 33

Usually, of course, I treat personal book recommendations with the suspicion they deserve. I've got enough to read as it is, so my first reaction when someone tells me to read something is to find a way to doubt their credentials, or to try to dredge up a conflicting view from the memory. (Just as stone always blunts scissors, a lukewarm "Oh, it was OK" always beats a "You have to read this." It's less work that way)

p. 35 (Bush at War)

I did, however, learn that George W. Bush was woken up by the Secret Service at 11:08pm on 9/11. Woken up! He didn't work late that night? And he wasn't too buzzy to get off to sleep? See, if that had been me, I would have been up until about six, drinking and smoking and watching TV, and I would have been useless the next day. It can't be right, can it, that world leaders emerge not through their ability to solve global problems, but to nod off at the drop of a hat? Most decent people can't sleep easily at night, and that, apparently, is precisely why the world is in such a mess.

p. 110

[B.S.] Johnson had nothing but contempt for the enduring influence of Dickens and the Victorian novel; strange, then, that in the end he should remind one of nobody so much as the utilitarian school inspector in the opening scene of Hard Times. Here's the school inspector: "I'll explain to you.. why you wouldn't paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of room in reality -- in fact?... Why, then, you are not to see anywhere what you don't see in fact; you are not to have anywhere what you don't have in fact. What is called Taste is only another name for Fact." And here's Johnson: "Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is telling lies." Like communists and fascists, Johnson and the dismal inspector wander off in opposite directions, only to discover that the world is round.

p. 89

It is only by accident, in the acknowledgements, that the book finally confronts the reader with the "American experience of class injustice" that is ostensibly its subject. So many instituations, so many funds and fellowships, retreat centers and universities, publishers, mentors, editors, friends, formed a net to support this one writer. Nothing comparable exists to hold up the countless Cocos and Jessicas.

But the tougher question is why the stories of poor people -- and not just any poor people but those acquainted with chaos and crime, those the overclass likes to call the underclass -- are such valuable raw material, creating a frisson among the literary set and the buyers of books? Why are their lives and private griefs currency for just about anyone but themselves? First of all: "by accident"? "BY ACCIDENT"? Those two words, so coolly patronizing and yet, paradoxically , so dim, must have made LeBlanc want to buy a gun. And I think a decent lawyer could have gotten her off, in the unfortunate event of a shooting. She spends ten years writing a book, and a reviewer in a national newspaper doesn't even notice what it's about. (It's about the American experience of class injustice, among other things.) Second: Presumably the extension of the argument about grants and fellowships and editors is that they are only appropriate for biographies of bloody, I don't know, Vanessa Bell; I doubt whether or "the support net" has ever been put to better social use.

And last: if you get to the end of Random Family and conclude that it was written to create "a frisson," then, I'm sorry, but you should be compelled to have your literacy surgically removed, without anesthetic. The lives of Coco and Jessica are "valuable raw material" because people who read books -- quite often people who are very quick to judge, quite often people who make or influence our social policy -- don't know anyone like them, and certainly have no idea how or sometimes even why they live; until we all being to comprehend, then nothing can even begin to change. Oh, and there's no evidence to suggest that Coco and Jessica resented being used in this way; there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they got it. But what would they know, right?

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