Always gotta love a book on books.
30 July 2013
I am a real sucker (as are most readers, I would guess) for books about books and reading. Every now and then I trip across a new one that I hadn't heard of before, and it's always a fun experience.
by Joe Queenan
This month's "book on books" discovery was Joe Queenan's recent One for the Books. Queenan is best known as a columnist and humorist (evidently he's written or writes for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the New York Times, and many more...thanks, author bio!) and also the writer of a very critically lauded memoir, titled Closing Time: A Memoir, about his hardscrabble youth in Philadelphia. If I sound uninformed, it's because I am--I'd always recognized Queenan's name, but I'd never read anything of his before (although I've always meant to read that memoir, since it showed up on a lot of "best of the year" lists).
In this book, Queenan not only describes his favorite books and seminal reading moments, he also muses on the print vs. digital book divide, booksellers, book culture, and the writing life. If you like a totally straightforward read, this book may not be for you: it tends to hop around a bit from topic to topic. That didn't bother me, though. I tend to read these types of books in small increments (both to savor them and to make them last longer), so a bit more disjointed organization didn't throw me. And, hilariously enough, I would imagine that if Joe and I met to talk books, we wouldn't have any books in common that we had both read or both liked. A person more unlike me in book taste it would be hard to find (unless we're looking at you, Lesbrarian): he favors modern fiction faves like Denis Johnson, Ha Jin, Italo Calvino, and a whole bunch of international writers of whom I've never heard (embarrassing, that, really). But yet? I really, really enjoyed this book. I think I enjoyed it because of the sheer number of titles Queenan lists and discusses--it's breathtaking, really. I didn't add many (any) of them to my TBR list, but it was a pleasure to read someone who is himself so well- and widely read.
And every now and then his narrative made me laugh, which I always enjoy. Take this anecdote, in which he explains how he spent a year of his life trying to read a book a day, meaning he could only read very short books. Off he took himself to the library, without his reading glasses, and just picked the littlest books off the shelf, without worrying himself too much about the content. He did enforce some standards when he got home, though:
"If I got home and discovered that I had checked out a bittersweet, life-affirming novel about a recently divorced woman who had moved to a small town in Maine or the Massif Central or the Mull of Kintyre and, after initially being shocked by the ham-fisted demeanor of the rough-hewn locals, was seduced by their canny charm, I took it right back." (p. 78.) Tee hee.
He also demonstrates, nicely, the "deal breakers" by which many readers abide (but which they don't often talk about):
"My refusal to read books about the Yankees or their slimy fans also extends to books written by supporters of the team. Thus, when I learned that Salman Rushdie had taken a shine to the Yankees, it eliminated any chance that I would ever read The Satanic Verses, no matter how good it is." (p. 123.) This makes me laugh because I am the same way, only about the subject of World War II (in fiction or non), and also because I am a slimy Yankees fan.
And of course, if you're a lover of physical books, you have to love paragraphs like this:
"Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on." (p. 27.)
It's good stuff. And it will even be good whether you read it in print or digital form. Read it.