Wednesday, January 16, 2013

One For The Books

Joe Queenan is the kind of humor writer with whom one doesn’t always agree, but he never fails to provoke a laugh.  He is our Mark Twain for the 21st century.  His paean to reading, One For The Books (Viking, 2012), does not disappoint and shows him at his snarkiest.

Unlike his darker and more bitter memoir, Closing Time (Viking, 2009), One For The Books is fun, especially if one is a reader who also had a childhood steeped in late night love affairs with print matter under the covers with a flashlight.  The problem is that those of us who are reading now, and became hooked in our formative years, well, we are dwindling in numbers according to Queenan.  His writing life allows him two hours a day for books and two hours a day for newspapers and magazines.  This adds up to his reading of more than 100 books per year.  “If it were possible,” he writes, “I would read eight to ten hours a day every day of the year…There is nothing I would rather do than read books.”

What does Queenan read?  He has discerning taste and reads almost exclusively fiction, unless he’s reviewing a nonfiction book for publication.  His opinion on the high school reading list is especially filled with scorn, and he singles out what he would call the abusive practice of teachers assigning books to be read over the summer.  He has no time for The Catcher In The Rye, A Separate Peace, or any other book featuring boys in a prep school.  He also dismisses Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, The Red Badge of Courage, and The Grapes of Wrath.

The problem with trying to be funny is that perfectly good people, institutions, and books get trampled upon.  Yes, those novels above are old school tomes written by dead, white males, but they’re good books.  He calls Harper Lee’s book—she, of course, a still-living white woman—a “featherweight” homily.  Excuse me, but Atticus Finch will always be the most moral character in fiction and To Kill A Mockingbird should be on every high school reading list.  However, to Queenan, he is “Just the Nicest White Man Ever.”

Queenan inspired me to reread some books, and in one instance, sent me scrambling to a used book website to order a four-volume edition of George Macaulay Trevelyan’s A Social History of England (Longmans, Green and Co., 1949).  The books arrived yesterday, and they are wonderful.  I love the smell of old books, but I digress.

I loved Queenan’s amusing stories about libraries, book shops, and public readings.  He is self-deprecating and black Irish funny.  And because of this, his prose is occasionally tinted in the sepia tones of memory threaded through with a touch of sadness.  The Irish are natural storytellers.  They “had no land, no money, no future,” Queenan writes.  “That left them with words, and words became books, and books, ingeniously coupled with music and alcohol, enabled the Irish to transcend reality.”  Queenan reminds us of his Irishness, his connection to this history of words:  “I grew up poor, and lots of times we had no food.  Lots of times we had no heat.  Lots of times we had no television.  But we always had books.  And books put an end to our misfortune.”  When Queenan goes to clean out his abusive and alcoholic father’s apartment after he dies, he finds little in the way of creature comforts, but he finds books, lots and lots of books.  His father was a man of limited formal education, but he was a reader, and his son believes he inherited his love from his parent who gave little else but misery.

Throughout, Queenan can be sharp-tongued and piquant, sad without being maudlin.  Let’s face it:  readers—the ones who read everything compulsively like a saint absorbed in prayer—and book shops, the churches where they worship, are disappearing.  This is a theme in Queenan’s writing.  His wittiest, sharpest barbs are saved for electronic reading devices, the Kindles, iPads, and Nooks of the world.  When Queenan recounts his rereading of favorite books and finding ticket stubs, notes, lists of hopes and dreams, and other fragments of memory between the yellowed pages, he points out how that cannot happen with a Kindle.  When he traces the way books bring people together across time and distance, evoking ghosts and lost years, no electronic screen gives such a tactile experience.  No marginalia, old coffee stains, or whiff of earthiness from long-ago summer rains can be accessed on an iPad.

“Reading is the way mankind delays the inevitable,” Queenan writes in the final pages.  “Reading is the way we shake our fist at the sky.”  He means, of course, the human condition.  Death.  “Every life, even the best ones, ends in sadness,” he says.  “People we adore pass on; voices we love to hear are stilled forever.  Books hold out hope that things may end otherwise.”  In an interview, he elaborated on this idea.  “I also believe that everything that happens to you as you grow older makes it easier to die, because the world you once lived in, and presumably loved, is gone.”

His is a brave faith in the written word, because books tell us that things do end, characters die, and a reader always comes to the end of the last page.  Joe Queenan would tell us to return to page one and read it again.  Surely, we will love it even more a second or third or fourth time through.  Read, read, read, he tells us.  We must stave off the inevitable, the unavoidable, end.

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