Columbine by Dave Cullen
The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro
Love in a Dark Time and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature by Colm Tóibín
The Irish Famine: A Documentary by Colm Tóibín and Diarmaid Ferriter
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Galatea by Madeline Miller
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
In Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Simpson
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Love in a Dark Time and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature by Colm Tóibín (unfinished)
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
Uses of the Erotic by Audre Lorde
Last month I was in Toronto with my dear friend Jenny, and we were exploring a used bookstore that we happened across on our way to a different used bookstore. She picked Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree off the shelf and recommended it to me, because she knew it was exactly the kind of writing about books that I’ve been trying to do in my own amateurish way. (She also slapped her debit card down on the machine before I could get mine out to pay for it, the absolute wretch.) The Spree was the first thing I read this month, and Jenny was right—it’s perfect inspiration.
The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of monthly “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) for The Believer magazine. Every one starts with two lists: the books Hornby bought in the past month, and the books he read. The bulk of the text is reflective and funny literary criticism, all with a charmingly relatable tone. I fretted that the book might be pretentious and make me insecure about my reading habits, but Hornby is delightfully normal. He begins the book as follows:
“So this is supposed to be about the how, and when, and why, and what of reading—about the way that, when reading is going well, one book leads to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning; and how, when it’s going badly, when the books don’t stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you’d rather do anything but attempt the next paragraph, or reread the last one for the tenth time. ‘We talked about books,’ says a character in Charles Baxter’s wonderful Feast of Love, ‘how boring they were to read, but how you loved them anyway.’ Anyone who hasn’t felt like that isn’t owning up.”
Reading about reading sounds boring, but what I found immediately appealing in Hornby’s book was the acknowlegment that sometimes I fucking hate reading. Books can be boring and I can go for months without reading, usually because I read something so bad that I needed to switch to TikTok or get really into podcasts for a while. Hornby tells us up front that he doesn’t often have time to read when there’s football on. So there’s no posturing—it’s just books, and whatever he thought of what he read that month, and if it was just one book or ten, it couldn’t possibly matter less. I also appreciate that Hornby demystifies reading—if reading is a cocktail, he muddles it with bitters like jobs and kids and television. He loves it, but it’s not a romance so much as a comfortable marriage of 50-plus years.
There’s another passage in the Spree that really struck me, and probably inspired me to read the newest Sally Rooney novel, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Hornby writes:
“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.”
I like this passage because I relate to it, obviously—I can’t resist buying way more books than I can actually read, as you saw from the list at the top. I keep them around as an extension of who I am, a statement about my values, and because they make me feel at home. But I’m also struck by the performativity and privilege inherent in that sentiment, and it reminded me of this interview with Sally Rooney about Marxism. The full interview is below if you’re interested, but here is the relevant section:
“Essentially the writer sells [people] the product which is cultured existence in the form of a commodity, and the commodity is a book. And people can purchase this book, and seemingly purchase their way into a cultured class. And all of the money that changes hands in the book industry is actually just people paying to belong to a class of people who read books. [...] I’m very skeptical of the way in which books are marketed as commodities, like almost like accessories which people can fill their homes with, like beautiful items that you can fill your shelves with and therefore become a sort of ‘book person.’ [...] It makes me feel that books have no potential to speak truth to power. They have non potential as political texts because of the role they play in the culture economy, that’s already determined how people are going to read them.”
I don’t have an answer for whether or not a novel can be Marxist; I hope that novels can speak truth to power, but I recognize that literary criticism isn’t by nature very radical or accessible. It’s what I like though, and I think it might do some good or at least be politically neutral to write about these things, so I’ll keep doing it. It keeps me out of trouble. And you might have shuddered at my “Books Bought” list this month, but rest assured the Salvation Army near my house only charges $1.99 for paperbacks and $3.99 for hardcovers, so I’m not breaking the bank over all this posturing or identity-building or whatever you want to call my shopping habits.
Beautiful World was my favourite Rooney novel; I preferred it immmensely over her first two books, which left a bitter and shallow impression on me. I think Eileen and Alice’s relationship was what kept my interest this time around, and we were actually rewarded with a happy ending! Rooney put the “sufferable” in “insufferable” this time and I sincerely look forward to, hopefully, her branching out a bit more in the future. I was also glad to see so much self-referential commentary in this novel—all her novels are so much about writing and being a so-called intellectual, so why not get meta with it?
This is getting long, so here are some rapid-fire thoughts on the rest of my reading month. In Grand Central Station was heartbreaking and devastating and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I consumed it in one sitting, in the bath with a glass of blueberry wine, on Valentine’s Day, and it was very soothing to me as someone coping with betrayal by a disloyal partner. Islands of Decolonial Love I have to admit I barely remember; it was fine, I think. Love in a Dark Time is also just okay, and I’m unsure if I’ll read the whole thing or just flip to the essays about authors I care about (Elizabeth Bishop, mainly). EmRata’s book My Body was actually a little bit spectacular. Not groundbreaking, but unflinching and touching. I’m working on an essay on it and Lorde’s theory of the power of the erotic, so that’s all I’ll say about it here, but it was very inspiring and my strongest recommendation of the month.
Thanks for reading, sweethearts! I hope you’re cozy and feeling the love. Spring will be here soon <3
I adore this framework! Especially being critical about the performativity of "being someone who reads" - I love books/reading/book culture too but social media makes it look way too sexy for what it often is (me hunched over my page for hours at a time, struggling to finish a book (for school or pride or whatever))