The Polysyllabic Spree

Yet another book to quote from, through out of the four excerpts, one is actually by someone else. It irritates me that the books I’m interested in right now are found in the library, not my own rather unwieldy collection, so I’m not doing chiselling of the sort I prefer right now. But anyway, here are some choice bits from The Pollysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2004), a collection of columns on reading for The Believer, a close cousin of McSweeney’s:

(page 112)
They’ve definitely taught me things: they’ve taught me, for example, that there is very little point in persisting with a book that isn’t working for me, and even less point in writing about it. In snarky old England, we’re used to working the other way round — we only finish books that aren’t working for us, and those are definitely the only ones we write about. Anyway, as a consequence, my reading has become more focused and less chancy, and I no longer choose novels that I know in advance will make me groan, snort, and guffaw.

The first book that ever defeated me was India: A Million Mutinies Now by VS Naipaul. I think it was sometime during my Hwa Chong Junior College years. I just couldn’t finish, the ploddingness drowned me into unconsciousness. I have promised myself to give the book another try, when I’ve become a more mature reader, however. Or maybe it’s just VS Naipaul? Here’s Hornby describing a battle with a trying author that he, kudos to him, actually won:

(page 37)
We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and airplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes — usually late at night, in bed — he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through twenty or thirty pages, it felt to me as though I’d socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses. And still he kept coming back for more. Only in the last fifty-odd pages, after I’d landed several of these blows, did old Wilkie show any signs of buckling under the assault. …

There are two sides two sides to every fight, though, and Wilkie would point out that I unwisely attempted to read the second half of No Name during a trip to LA. Has anyone ever attempted a Victorian novel in Los Angeles, and if so, why?

Some time ago, I read a quote (or thought it up, I’m not sure) that made me realise that despite the many ‘what was I thinking’ moments I get when I scan my electronic book catalogue or my sardine-time shelves, whatever titles that lie there are of importance because I chose them. What is important is not the number of obscure or acknowledged crass-ics you have, but that you have chosen the books (or influenced the gifts) that make up your library. In the following, Hornby articulates his own version of biblio-nirvana:

(page 125)
… all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. … 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.

And here’s the excerpt from that “someone else” — Anton Chekhov’s A Life in Letters. It stung me in ways I didn’t expect, and I’d do well to pay heed to:

(page 137)
Civilised people must, I believe, satisfy the following criteria:

(1) They respect human beings as individuals and are therefore always tolerant, gentle, courteous and amenable … They do not create scenes over a hammer or a mislaid eraser; they do not make you feel they are conferring some great benefit on you when they live with you, and they don’t make a scandal when they leave, saying, “it’s impossible to live with you!” They put up with noise and cold, over-done meat, jokes, and the presence of strangers in the house …

(2) They have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye. So for example, if Pyotr realised that his father and mother are turning grey from worry and depression and are lying awake at nights because they see him so seldom (and when they do, he’s the worse for drink), he hastens to see them and cuts out the vodka. Civilised people lie awake worrying about how to help the Polevayevs, to pay for their brothers to go through University, to see their mother decently clothed …

(3) They respect other people’s property, and therefore pay their debts.

(4) They are not devious, and they fear lies as they fear fire. They don’t tell lies even in the most trivial matters. To lie to someone is to insult them, and the liar is diminished in the eyes of the person he lies to. Civilised people don’t put on airs; they behave in the street as they would do at home, they don’t show off to impress their juniors … They are discreet and don’t broadcast unsolicited confidences … They mostly keep silence, from respect for others’ ears.

(5) They don’t run themselves down in order to provoke the sympathy of others. They don’t play on other people’s heartstrings to be sighed over and cosseted. They don’t say: “No one understands me!” or “I’ve wasted my talents on trivial doodlings! I’m a whore!!” because all that sort of thing is just cheap striving for effects, it’s vulgar, old hat and false …

(6) They are not vain. They don’t waste time with the fake jewellery of hobnobbing with celebrities, being permitted to shake the hand of a drunken Plevako, the exaggerated bonhomie of the first person they meet at the Salon, being the life and soul of the bar … They regard phrases like “I am a representative of the Press!!” — the sort of thing one only hears from people like Rozdevich and Levenberg — as absurd. If they have done a brass farthing’s work they don’t pass it off as if it were 100 roubles’ by swanking about with their portfolios, and they don’t boast of being able to gain admission to places other people aren’t allowed in … True talent always sits in the shade, mingles with the crowd, avoids the limelight … As Krylov said, the empty barrel makes more noise than the full one …

(7) If they do possess talent, they value it. They will sacrifice people of mind, women, wine, and the bustle and vanity of the world for it … They take pride in it. So they don’t go boozing with school teachers or with people who happen to have come to stay with Skvortsov; they know they have a responsibility to exert a civilising influence on them rather than aimlessly hanging out with them. And they are fastidious in their habits …

(8) They work at developing their aesthetic sensibility. They do not allow themselves to sleep in their clothes, stare at the bedbugs in the cracks in the walls, breathe foul air, walk on a floor covered in spit, cook their food on a paraffin stove. As far as possible they try to control and elevate their sex drive … Civilised people don’t simply obey their baser instincts. They demand more from a woman than bed, horse sweat and the sound of pissing and more in the way of intelligence than an ability to swell up with a phantom pregnancy; artists above all need freshness, refinement, humanity, the capacity to be a mother, not just a hole … They don’t continually swill vodka, they’re aware they’re not pigs so they don’t root about sniffing in cupboards. They drink when they want to, as free men … Forthey require mens sana in corpore sano [a sound mind in a sound body].

And so on. That’s what civilised people are like … Reading Pickwick and learning a speech from Faust by heart is [sic] not enough if your aim is to become a truly civilised person and not to sink below the level of your surroundings. Taking a cab over to Yakimanka and then decamping a week later is not enough …

What you must do is work unceasingly, day and night, read constantly, study, exercise willpower … Every hour is precious …

Shuttling backwards and forwards to Yakimanka won’t help. You must roll up your sleeves and make a clean break, once and for all … Come back to us, smash the vodka bottle and settle down to read … even if it’s just Turgenev whom you’ve never read …

You’ve got to get over your f*cking vanity, you’re not a child any more … you’ll soon be thirty! Time to grow up!

I’m expecting you … We all are …

A Chekhov


One thought on “The Polysyllabic Spree

  1. I gave “…Spree” to a friend, borrowed and returned it, and have been thinking about Chekov’s letter ever since. It’s f’ing awesome. Thank you putting it out there…

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