Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: One for the Books by Joe Queenan

 Normally, I really enjoy reading about reading.  When I saw One for the Books sitting forlornly on the shelf at the library, I snatched it up, took a quick glance at the jacket cover, and dropped it in my basket without any compunction.  And I was let down when it didn't live up to my hopes.

I've never read anything else by Mr. Queenan, so I can't compare this to the rest of his oeuvre, but he came across in this book as a bit of a snob, I'm afraid - at least about books.  And that never sits right with me.  I'm unabashedly egalitarian about books and reading habits.  Of course, there are some books, genres, and authors that I prefer and others I avoid (see my What I Read page and Review Policy above), but I don't think I look down disapprovingly on others with different predilections.  At least not most of the time.

Mr. Queenan started out in such a promising way: "I have never squandered an opportunity to read."  Me neither!  It's a rare day when I don't have a book close at hand, just in case I can snag a couple minutes to glance at a page or two while waiting for the dentist to call me back or for the traffic light to turn green.  "If it were possible, I would read books eight to ten hours a day, every day of the year.  Perhaps more.  There is nothing I would rather do than read books."  Oh, Mr. Queenan!  We are kindred spirits! (I thought to myself.)

But then he calls people who identify with the ideas that an author put into words - "You said exactly what I was thinking!" - "nitwits".  When I express a similar sentiment, I mean something along the lines of "Wow!  That author found the perfect combination of words to express a truth of the human experience, and I recognize that truth in my own life."  Not that the "writer functions as some sort of psychic vessel" for me and other readers.  Perhaps I'm being too hard on Mr. Queenan, though, or don't completely understand what he's trying to say.  In the same paragraph he explains, "I feel that writers say things I would never have thought of saying, and in a way I would have never thought of saying them," at which I was nodding my head.  That's why they are the writers and I'm the reader.  "Great writers say things that are so beautiful, the very act of repeating them makes life itself more beautiful."  Again, yes!  But then why is a person who identifies with these beautiful things and appreciates the ability to be able to assemble words so well, a "nitwit"?  I'm not saying that Shakespeare and I are totally on the same wavelength and I was thinking his exact thought in those exact words.  I'm saying I recognize our common humanity and am grateful someone with a greater gift than I could articulate that truth.

And then he gets into book clubs.  Dude, don't disparage my book clubs.  He says, "I have always had an aversion to book clubs. I have always had an aversion to people who belong to book clubs.  I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club."  Well, don't hold back, Mr. Queenan.  Tell me how you really feel!  Seriously, though, that's fine.  No one has to like book clubs, but again, why the insulting remarks?  "Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation...The reading experiences that book club members share are not intimate; they are generic."  So now I'm egotistical, in addition to being a nitwit.  He must have had a really negative book club experience when he was younger - or maybe in a previous life.  I've been to quite a few book clubs and read quite a range of books with those book clubs, and intimate conversation is exactly what I'm looking for.  Of course, some discussions (and books) are better or more intimate than others.  And I'm certainly not thinking that I'm on the same level as James Joyce or anything, but I want to have a conversation.  I want to share my thoughts and ideas about books with others, both those who agree with and disagree with me, because that's how I learn!  That's how my mind gets stretched and I start to see things from a different perspective.  Mr. Queenan asserts: "Participants want to connect with other people who feel exactly the same way they do about a book...Participants are seeking unanimity, and good books do not invite unanimity."  Maybe that what some participants want, but not all of them, and not me.  And then this: "The people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent, but they are rarely what I would call interesting."  So now I'm an uninteresting, egotistical nitwit.  At least he concedes that I'm generally intelligent.

And he has not a single nice thing to say about e-readers.

But maybe I'm taking all this too personally.  Mr. Queenan obviously hit a few of my hot buttons.  He also hit the nail on the head a few times, too.  Relating something he'd heard from a friend, he said, "A library is not a business.  A library is a miracle."  I can second that.  "Small books possess qualities that large books do not...Small books make their own terms and succeed on them.  Reading longer books, no matter how good they are, can be a chore."  Again, truth!  And I definitely agree with his assessment of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: "badly written and...for all intents and purposes voyeuristic porn.  The nonsense about Lisbeth Salander as a feminist role model is twaddle; she's a sociopath with piercings."

Mr. Queenan does demonstrate some admirable self-awareness when he mocked a positive review one of his books received.  "Somewhere," the book reviewer wrote, "Mencken is beaming."  Mr. Queenan responds: "No, he wasn't.  H.L. Mencken, a self-absorbed curmudgeon and all-purpose snob, wouldn't have thought much of my piddling efforts...Anyway, the book wasn't all that good." He complains that "the vast majority of book reviews are favorable, even though the vast majority of books deserve no praise whatsoever." (Maybe this one will even out the score slightly, Mr. Queenan?)

The more he reveals of his early life, the more understandable, and even forgivable, his elitist attitude is, though.  "When I was young and penniless, I read books in the hope of lifting myself out of the abyss, subscribing to the credo that knowledge is power...But I read books for another, less noble reason: because it made me feel superior to my working-class father--a ninth-grade dropout--and everyone like him.  I disliked the poor slobs I was living among back then, not realizing at the time that not all poor slobs are slobs by choice..."

One for the Books did pick up for me toward the end.  The penultimate chapter touched on required reading lists in high school and the detailed questionnaire he sent seventy-five friends asking about their reading habits and preferences and contained several gems:
"Reading reminds me what it is to be human." 
"Reading means I can lead quadruple lives any old time I open a book...I've learned as much about people, culture, science, history, politics, other lands--criminy, other universes--from books as from actual lived life. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, there is no aircraft carrier like a book." 
"Reading means that tomorrow may not be as bleak as today."
"Reading gives me hope."
Me, too.

One for the Books
by Joe Queenan
ISBN: 9780670025824
Buy it on Amazon here: (hardcoverebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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