Joe Queenan has written about film, sports and travel but never at length about his greatest love, books. With his witty and insightful "One for the Books," he finally delivers. It has been worth the wait.
He begins with a sobering statistic: The average American reads a mere four books a year. Queenan confesses that "there is nothing I would rather do than read books" but rues the amount of hours in the day and, more poignantly, the fact that the clock is ticking. Such moments of pathos pepper this account of a life of reading, but in the main it is a joyful celebration of the books that have formed, inspired or just entertained him. Books have always been his "safety valve," both a source of edification and a means of escape, especially during his rough childhood in a Philadelphia housing project.
As with his memoir, "Closing Time," Queenan is quick and indeed keen to exhibit his many cranky idiosyncrasies. He is a bibliophile but has no time for first editions or signed copies. He reads voraciously but is too choosy to be wholly omnivorous. "Middlemarch" is a particular bugbear, a novel he has started six times and which, he is certain, will be the last book he will ever finish.
Writers get dismissed on thoroughly irrational grounds (Salman Rushdie for declaring himself a Yankees fan; P.G. Wodehouse for being "a poncey aristocrat"); books are shunned if they are afflicted by "graphic vileness" -- proof, it would appear, that you can judge a book by its cover. He avoids secondhand books ("people should consider it an honor to pay full price for a book by Don DeLillo") and has never gotten around to reading "Catch-22" ever since the copy he lent to a friend came back "defiled, debased."
A librarian labels Queenan "too snarky," but that is precisely why we read him. He is at his acerbic best when railing against the horrors of online book-buying, the insidious proliferation of Kindles and the twee sanctity of book clubs. ("I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club.") He provides convincing arguments for the pleasure to be had from bad books, but I would take him to task over his contentious claim that "great books don't make you think, because the author has already done all the thinking for you."
There are undoubtedly greater concerns in life than agonizing over how to arrange our books on the shelf and whether to read or reread, but we should indulge Queenan his foibles -- better still, indulge in them. "One for the Books" is a must for anyone who enjoys the seemingly dying pursuit of reading.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.