READING FOR HIS LIFE

By Ligaya Mishan

Published: January 27, 2013

By Joe Queenan’s reckoning, in his 62 years of life he has read at least 6,128 books. Should he continue to read at his current clip (100 to 200 books annually), he calculates that given natural life expectancy, he has only some 2,138 books to go. The clock is ticking, he warns, for him and for us all. If that makes you want to abandon this review immediately and grab the nearest Dostoyevsky, no hard feelings.

Queenan, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, is a famously dyspeptic humorist and self-proclaimed “sneering churl.” But in “One for the Books,” a gathering of essays, parts of which appeared in these pages, he is mostly in celebratory mode, writing of his love of literature. It is a stalker-ish love, in which he reads everywhere (at wakes, during Jerry Garcia guitar solos) and anything (Pamela Anderson’s “Star: A Novel,” Geraldo Rivera’s memoir), and in spare moments fetishistically rearranges his personal collection of 1,374 tomes by height, thickness and author’s nationality.

While hardly monogamous – he always has at least 15 books going at once – Queenan is a wholehearted lover, surprisingly vulnerable to the slightest volume, as ready to give himself to a novella about a cross-dressing Mexico City hairdresser as to “Northanger Abbey.” He will slog to the end of even a turgid, minor work by a beloved author, so as not to seem ungrateful.

Fortunately, given Queenan’s particular skill set, he finds plenty in the book world to sneer at, too. On the cheapskates who frequent secondhand bookshops: “People should consider it an honor to pay full price for a book by Don DeLillo or Margaret Atwood.” On reviews containing the adjective “luminous”: “I prefer books that go off like a Roman candle.” On the futility of book clubs: “Good books do not invite unanimity. They invite discord, mayhem, knife fights, blood feuds.” refuses to read novels in which the protagonist attends private school (so long, Harry Potter), or books written by fans of the Yankees, a group that turns out to include Salman Rushdie. And he reserves particular scorn for readers of e-books, who, he argues, “have purged all the authentic, nonelectronic magic and mystery from their lives.” A person housebound with an infant might disagree. A person lying in the dark next to the aforementioned, now finally, blessedly sleeping infant might consider the conjuring of “Wolf Hall” on a beautifully backlighted iPad a wonder passing all wonders.

And what of book reviewers? Queenan, a formidable reviewer himself, complains that we are “too darned nice.” Let me note, then, that “One for the Books” is a shaggy specimen, and could have done without the mock Amazon reviews from previous centuries or the litany of fake Lincoln titles and Kinks autobiographies or the mock book-discussion questions.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to be charmed by Queenan’s enthusiasms. He bemoans never finding someone willing to talk about the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (I am!), and admits to never finishing – and never wanting to finish – “Ulysses,” an old nemesis of mine that I once attempted to destroy by wedging it under a jack to change a flat tire. (It haunts me still, with its oil-stained pages.)

When Queenan was young, books were an escape hatch from life in a Philadelphia housing project “with substandard parents,” including a father who “used books the same way he used alcohol: to pretend that he was not here.” Now they are a way to rage against the dying of the light. “As long as we have these epic, improbable reading projects arrayed before us, we cannot breathe our last,” he writes. “Tell the Angel of Death to come back later; I haven’t quite finished ‘Villette.”’

(Ligaya Mishan writes the Hungry City column for the Dining section of The Times.)
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Joe Queenan is a humourist, critic and author from Philadelphia who become an avid reader as a means of escape from a young age. One for the Books is a memoir where Queenan tries to come to terms with his eccentric reading style. Joe Queenan is not... more

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