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About a Book

Reading Nick Hornby is like sitting down with a good friend for a chat about books, movies, people, whatever. He's smart and funny, but he is not pretentious; or when he verges on pretension, he beats you to the punch, apologizing for his vanity (that's so British of him), vowing it will never happen again, or that it probably will happen again, but he's only human, right? In both his fiction (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and How to Be Good) and his non-fiction (Fever Pitch and Songbook), Hornby consistently exemplifies Kurt Vonnegut's maxim for successful writing: that the writer be a good date for the reader. The writer must not be too smart, or too nasty, or too obscure, or too obnoxious. The writer is to be polite, funny, engaging, courteous, friendly. Hornby is the rare writer who can say a whole hell of a lot without coming off as smugly proud of himself for being able to say so much.

In that respect, Hornby found a perfect fit in the Believer, a literary-magazine offshoot of Dave Eggers's McSweeney's. The credo of the magazine is to foster a positive environment for creative writers and artists. The editors pledge that their reviews will never be nasty or snide or, in their own words, "snarky," a malaise that they feel has gripped the mainstream book press. Their mission is admirable, even if they go about it in a somewhat adolescent manner (I mean, really, not everything can be good; certain things deserve negative criticism, no?). The Polysyllabic Spree collects 14 months' worth of Nick Hornby's column in the magazine devoted to what he'd been reading the past month. For all his amiability, however, even Hornby finds the editors of the Believer a bit zealous: the title of the book gently lampoons them, likening them the esoteric rock band The Polyphonic Spree, which consists of a large group of people wearing robes; he feels like a philistine and dullard when compared to this bunch of young, ambitious, hyper-literary vegans with strong convictions and hang-ups, living very much up in the ivory tower. In fact, when Hornby has something bad to say about a novel, he refuses to mention the novel by name, fearing the wrath of the Spree. That's what's so great about Hornby. His voice is one of innocence and curiosity, yes, but it is also the voice of a middle-aged man, tinged with a sense of realism and maturity.

Hornby's last book of essays, Songbook, was a collection of musings on his favorite songs and albums. The books was beautifully produced by McSweeney's to look like a mix tape, and attached to the inside cover was a CD containing ten of the songs Hornby discusses in the book. The Polysyllabic Spree is somewhat the same thing, but for books instead of music. At the beginning of each column, Hornby lists the books he's purchased and the books he's actually read during the last month. In the first chapter in the book, chronicling September 2003, the reader instantly notices that Hornby bought ten books, including a few hefty literary biographies. Does that seem like showing off? Well, Hornby wonders that too, writing:

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