If books are an escapist tool, then surely books about books are a tool of solidarity: here’s an opportunity for the most tragic of individuals, those who read about life rather than actually living it, to see that vicariously lived life lived out in book form. Vicariously. Whichever publisher came up with the deliciously recursive idea of the book about books is either a most magnanimous sort, or one who is the cruel, but endlessly amused, opposite.
As someone who reads about as prolifically, if not quite as polemically, as Joe Queenan–at a rate of some two-hundredish books a year–you can bet that I found myself fairly eerily profiled in One for the Books, although in the form of the vituperative old grump I, although not quite there yet, quite believe I will become. Queenan shares the same ambivalence about the wider literary sphere and engages, as I invariably feel as though I do, in the life-long double-think experiment that is inevitably part of the life of the reader. And bloody hell, it’s good fun.
This is not a bubble-bath book sudsing about in the nostalgia of the literary engagements of childhood, or of the oft-described vanilla scent of an ageing tome, or of the inimitable lure of the first edition. It’s a drunken uncle at a wedding book: sometimes scabrous, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes insightful, and sometimes uncomfortable because of all the ways that it reminds you of yourself. Because readers are weird, weird people.
The life of the reader is desperately, inexplicably idiosyncratic, contradictory and bizarre, and in One for the Books Queenan works through not just his reading history, but also his own individual reading compulsions, aversions and habits, each one of which the reader will either nod along with or declaim as guff–because applicable or not to our own particular ways of reading, all of this stuff is familiar. Like most obsessive readers, Queenan has developed very careful ways of dealing in and with books, and those who have mired themselves in the world of literature and have no intention, ever, of coming back out again will find it both hilariously and painfully familiar.
“I read anywhere and everywhere, except in the bathroom, as I find this unspeakably vulgar and disrespectful to the person whose work one is reading, unless one is reading someone appalling,” he informs us after an in-depth discussion about the situations and places in which reading is acceptable (all of them, including at work and during opera performances, and probably weddings). Reading etiquette is a niche toilette that, like which item of cutlery should be used when eating oysters, is only ever considered by those utterly embroiled in their literary habits–those of us who really have been itching to skive off during a heinously dull wedding reception during the Grease medley number and get back to a fictional, and thus ever more interesting, love story instead.
Ever the misanthrope, Queenan sees books as both insulation from the sorry souls who surround us, offering us a valid, and meaningful way of escape. And it’s not just his reading material, but also his reading habits that differentiate him from the four-book-a-year bestseller-and-bookclub-title-only-please Jo(e) Average. There are deeply ingrained, ritualistic habits about his reading: the types of books that he might buy or borrow, his habit of writing in books, his polybibliophilia–fifteen books at a time is the norm for him–the curious experiments into reading and the careful qualitative assessments into one’s reading life that only a prolific reader would bother to undertake. These include a thoughtful meditation on the effect of ugly book covers on the reading experience, the sense of achievement attained from whizzing through a (short) book a day, the inevitably painful outcome of choosing books at random from the library, and the occasional bit of bookish anarchy, such as rescuing unloved books from the library cull pile.
It’s with scathing disdain that Queenan considers the reading habits of others–those very others, of course, are the ones to blame for good books winding up on the library cull pile in the first place–rejecting their efforts to lend him books, sadly lamenting the fact that it’s impossible to discuss wonderful authors and books with people because no one seems to have read them, and pondering the way in which it’s possible to share a life with someone despite being utterly divergent in terms of reading preferences. Things not to discuss at the dinner table: politics, religion, and books.
Mixed in with these musings on the how and why of reading are endless anecdotes about Queenan’s own reading adventures, and those of others: and these are invaluable in balancing the gruff (although amusingly so) superciliousness and long-winded I’m-old-so-listen-to-me indulgence that pervades the text. Perhaps what resonates most, however, is Queenan’s ever-present awareness of his own mortality, something he views not in terms of his remaining years, but rather in terms of his remaining books. His constant refrains about narrowing his reading list accordingly and his determination to, one day, finish Middlemarch, a longstanding contender on his list of books to read in his lifetime, are hauntingly moving. Imagine being a four-a-year reader and managing only some few hundred books in a lifetime–what a tragic waste of opportunity.
I’ve done the maths on my own bookish future, and assuming that I live to the Australian (female) average of 84, and reading at around 200 books a year, I still have a fairly hefty 11,400 books until I have to face my own Middlemarch. In the greater scheme of things, however, that’s scarcely a drop in the ocean, and I can certainly say that I’m glad that One for the Books has been one of them, for it’s made me reconsider what I read, have read, and want to read before I turn my sights on Eliot at long last. If you’re a bookish type, you’ll enjoy this. If you’re an older bookish type and need to get to Middlemarch sooner rather than later, maybe opt for the tl;dr version extracted over here instead.
With thanks to Viking (via Netgalley) for the review copy
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Other books by Joe Queenan: