On reading

A look at my bookshelf
A look at my bookshelf

I like reading.

Okay, it’s a massive understatement to say I like reading. In 2012 I read 102 books, after amending my goal of 50 books twice to 75 and then 100. I lost a lot of sleep to reading, and I don’t regret it at all (plus it was a good way to pass the time on all the flights and train rides I took in the first half of the year).

I also really enjoy reading about reading. Some of my favourite non-fiction books are about books or about the act of writing, such as

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

and today I spent my morning reading The Polysyllabic Spree by one of my favourite authors of fiction and non-fiction, Nick Hornby. It’s one of those books I couldn’t put down–literally, as I nearly smacked into the kitchen counter while trying to read and take a pita out of the toaster at the same time about half an hour ago. It’s not about writing, exactly, rather about reading—the book is a collection of essays Hornby wrote over the course of a year detailing the books he bought and the ones he actually got around to reading—but it falls along those same lines and probably captures better than anything else I’ve read the way reading feels.

The Polysyllabic Spree
The Polysyllabic Spree

Maybe this is an overstatement; I usually try not to review books immediately after reading them, because sometimes my enthusiasm fades or I think back and wonder “how the fuck did I miss that massive plot hole?” (less of a problem in a collection of essays, admittedly), but this is less of a review and more of an… agreement, anyway.

I am a somewhat obsessive collector of books. I have hundreds scattered around my room, boxed up in my parents’ bedroom or in the attic, on the desk in my apartment at school, packed away in trunks… and that doesn’t stop me from buying more at every opportunity, going to the library at least once a week, and reading ebooks on my Kinde. One of my favourite parts of the year is when the Friends of the TCPL book sale opens its doors, and if I can leave the warehouse less than $60 poorer, it’s a rare and notable feat. Have I read most of these books? No, but I’ll get to them someday, and that won’t stop me from buying more. So I definitely related to Hornby’s lists of all the books he bought in a month and the comparison to the books he read in that same time period.

More books
More books

More than that, there were a couple specific ideas he wrote about with regard to reading and to a reader’s ability to connect (or inability to connect) to a book that I really loved. In his assessment of one novel Hornby writes that he was thrown out of the story when a character said that “Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0.” As an avid football (specifically Arsenal) fan, Hornby—who wrote the football-fan-memoir-bible Fever Pitch—said, “I am positive that no one has ever said ‘Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0’ in the entire history of either Arsenal Football Club or the English Language. ‘Beat,’ ‘thrashed,’ ‘did’ or ‘done,’ ‘trounced,’ ‘thumped,’ ‘shat all over,’ ‘walloped,’ etc., yes; ‘won,’ emphatically, no.” You know, it’s things like this that really matter to writers and to readers; I’m sure most people wouldn’t be bothered by this off-hand comment, but to someone who really loves the subject of said off-hand comment, whether it be football or something else, that could make or break the reader’s interest in the story. One reason I love Hornby’s most famous novel, High Fidelity, is that there are so many references in it to music that I love, and he obviously knows his shit. Research is important, but you can only fake it so much.

There’s another essay in which Hornby talks about Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane, who happens to be another of my favourite authors. Hornby criticises a moment where the protagonist refers to the worst night of his life, which presumably happened in an earlier book in the series. “Hang on a moment. The worst night of your life was three years ago? So what am I reading now? The fourth-worst night of your life?” Hornby asks. While I really like the Kenzie-Gennaro series and I don’t have a problem with recurring protagonists in general, he’s got a point. If every novel has a climax, then some climaxes must, inevitably, be less climactic than others, so how do you make a reader care about the lesser climaxes? And how many times can I use the word “climax” in this paragraph without my blog getting trolled by porn-bots?

And, yeah, more books
And, yeah, more books

Then, finally, there was this line in an essay about how so many autobiographies Hornby has read have revealed that the authors of novels have a lot in common with their characters: “Some people—critics, mostly—would argue that this diminishes the achievement somehow, but it’s the writing that’s hard, not the invention.” This is an idea that’s been said in a million times in a million ways, but it still always connects. I think up dozens of stories in a day. Most of us do, probably. The question is how many of them get written down and edited and edited and edited until they’re something that someone else might want to read? That’s something I need to get better at, but whether it’s 1667 words a day or 750 or more or less, the writing is the hard part, but it needs to be done.

I think most people who write also love reading, and most people who write about reading are rather good writers and therefore enjoyable for another lover of reading to read. With the exception of me, of course, because that was a terribly-crafted sentence. My point is, I love books, all books, but especially the ones that make me really excited—excited enough to write a thousand words about how much I love reading, for example. I highly recommend The Polysyllabic Spree; I highly recommend writing; I highly recommend connecting with people who love the things you love, even if it’s just through reading their work. And I highly recommend getting your hands on more books than you know what to do with. You’ll get around to them someday.

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