I’ve been reading two sets of essays, Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree and Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and been surprised to note I’m enjoying Nick far more than I’m enjoying Zadie. Before we go any further, I must make one thing clear: these are BOTH very good books. They represent wildly differing perspectives in writing about books, however, and that’s worth thinking about, as how we write about books says a great deal about what we value them for, and what we engage with, and the ways we use stories in our lives.
Poor old Zadie Smith suffered in this instance because her essays are based in traditional literary criticism; they are very clever, very eloquent, mixing biography and critique together, and the sentences collect like pearls on a string. I felt I was reading very nice Cambridge literature essays, and for obvious reasons I’m a little allergic to that right now. Nick Hornby exploits his workaday blokeish persona and spends a great deal of time in amusing self-deprecation, pondering why he can’t help but buy more books than he can read. In one of the articles he describes how the birth of a child sends him rushing into a bookstore, convinced months will now pass without another chance to buy books. And how the next three days, walking the baby takes him past and into another three bookshops because what else is there to do with a newborn but hang about browsing? Hornby’s articles constantly bring his reading life and his real life onto a collision course, and they are very funny. He’s very present in his writing, railing at stupid reviews he’s read, enthusing about books he’s loved, the kind of man who loses his temper quickly and who cries at sentimental happy-sad endings, I’d bet. Zadie Smith is present too in her essays but she’s a much cooler customer; I never got the feeling that she had been compelled to write about a book because it had made her cry. Incidentally, both of these authors went to Cambridge, it’s just that Nick Hornby hides it better.
I was wondering why Nick Hornby’s articles made me keep on reading, the way you can’t stop putting Maltesers in your mouth, whilst Zadie Smith’s essays, though extremely admirable, made me put the book down as soon as I’d reached the end of one. I came to the conclusion that Hornby’s kept reminding me of all the ways I express and experience my love of books, the stupid things I might do, like buying a book that might never be read but which nevertheless cries out to be possessed, or walking into a lamppost because you can’t put your book down, even for the essential task of looking where you are going. Why do we read at all? Because books have this intense and immediate effect upon us. From the first sentence of a good book, you’re in it, relating to the characters, entering their world. Hornby evokes a world all book lovers will know, no matter what we read. When he talks about books he’s good at giving an evocative synopsis, and so his writing about books also has an easy, immediate effect on the reader. With Zmith’s essays, you have to be in the frame of mind in which you are feeling the love before you begin, because what comes next requires concentration and effort.
This is not to say that the effort isn’t worth it. Zadie Smith can come out with some gorgeous sentences and excellent points. Talking of Felice Bauer she says: ‘For Kafka she is symbol: the whetstone upon which he sharpens his sense of self.’ That’s a lovely insight that deepens as you gaze upon it and there are many such nice points. Zadie Smith’s intellect is tough and uncompromising, it doesn’t let up and wallow in cheap jokes. I got the feeling that she is a naturally serious-minded and intelligent reader. Talking of her own writing, she describes how she keeps a particular quote about her at all times, to sustain the right sort of atmosphere for her work in progress. The current one ‘is a thought of Derrida’s and very simple: “If a right to a secret is not maintained then we are in a totalitarian space.”’ This does not strike me as being most people’s understanding of simple. After all the quote is from Derrida, who, if he ever suspected he’d written a simple sentence, would probably not be able to get out of bed the next morning. If Zadie Smith thinks Derrida can be simple and direct, then hers is a pretty classy mind. And there are excellent reasons why we should put ourselves in contact with classy minds, even if they require a little more work from us. Nick Hornby describes it wonderfully when he is won over by Marianne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping:
I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading Housekeeping, I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage (not that Housekeeping is inaccessible, but it is deep and dark and rich): it’s possible to whiz through it without allowing it even to touch the sides, and a bit of side-touching has to happen if a book is going to be properly transformative. If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul?’
This is a good point: what will I retain from The Polysyllabic Spree? Not much, I regret to say, except for a few good anecdotes, and a list of yet more books I’m trying not to purchase. I think I read it too fast and it may not have touched the sides. However, am I so sure that Zadie Smith’s essays will stick with me longer? I found that they worked at the level of each individual sentence, but I had to keep drawing back to remind myself what it was we were basically talking about. This is a classic error of the serious literary critic – the more complex the thoughts about literature, the better the signposting has to be, and signposting is very hard to do well. Basically, it’s the way a writer keeps reminding the reader what the point of the analysis is. Or, to put it another way, signposting indicates the simple horizon of truth we are headed towards beyond the immediate complexity of the thinking. A really fine piece of writing about books will manage to bring both into harness, and it must, because the best literature shows us how life is both very simple and highly complex at the same time. That’s basically what writing books is all about, the way that extraordinary paradox of simplicity and complexity knocks us sideways all the time. So maybe my reaction shows that, for me, Zadie Smith attempts to do something very difficult and doesn’t always pull it off, whereas Nick Horby aims much lower, but hits the bullseye with his insights every time. Although he jokes around a lot about his tendency to buy too many books, he ends up recognising a more profound point to it:
I suddently had a little epiphany: 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, of course, we should never underestimate the advantage that critics have when they say the things we want to hear.
[In the interests of accuracy and fairness, I must point out that only the first section in Zadie Smith's collection of essays is about literature. She goes on to write about writing and film and her family and I enjoyed these essays. But you've seen the length of this review! I could hardly talk about every topic she'd covered.]