I’ve been consuming, exactly like popcorn, Nick Hornby’s book reviews from The Believer, which have been conveniently collected in three comics-sized volumes, starting with The Polysyllabic Spree.

He starts out each column with a list of what books he’s bought that month and what he’s read, which tells you a lot about him right there, because right there, ruefully recognized, is the gulf between aspiration and realization.  It’s rare that the lists have a large overlap.

Hornby is the author of High Fidelity (and if he ever read this I can imagine the description triggering a smile that’s also a wince), which might lead you to think he’s nerdy and acerbic.  And he is, though constrained by what is apparently a house rule at the Believer to speak no ill of authors.  He manages to get around this in various ways.

He is, or is adept at seeming to be, effortlessly hilarious in a way I think only Brits can manage.  Americans are can be smart and funny, but we tend to earnestness, and can never quite forget that we’re huge in the world.  In our national mythos we appear to ourselves as Bugs Bunny, but everyone else would compare us to Foghorn Leghorn.  The Brits no longer have to worry about all that.  Surely no British author, however young, worries about writing The Great British Novel.  It’s been done, right, so you’d might as well relax.

Although he can be a great salesmen for the books he reads, the column can be read as pure comedy, with rueful undertones and frequent digressions on Arsenal.  A typical bit, on a biography of the poet Robert Lowell:

…perhaps Hamilton’s criticism of the poems tends to be a little too astringent– the Collected Poems runs to twelve hundred pages, but Hamilton seems to argue that we could live without a good eleven hundred and fifty of them.  And this is a poet he clearly loves…

Which reminded me of Robert Graves’s idea, in Watch the North Wind Rise, that a future civilization might create anthologies of the masterpieces of the past– suitably selected and truncated– I think Graves allocated a hundred pages to England.  It’s a really pretty depressing thought.  Morbid thought: what if all that’s ever remembered of me is the less than a dozen lines found in Wikiquote?  Morbider thought: what if not even those?

I don’t mean to get you down… come on, wasn’t that bit about 1150 skippable pages amusing?  When it comes down to it, Hornby’s is a really pleasant head to spend some time in and I suppose I’m going to have to read some of his novels as well.

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