By Stuart Nulman
One for the Books by Joe Queenan (Penguin Books, $16)
Towards the end of his book One for the Books, veteran columnist and critic Joe Queenan quotes a friend of his who said something quite thought-provoking about the impact of books: “You want to leave your children well fixed at the end of your life? Leave them with books.”
In age of the Kindle, Kobo or any other e-reader that seems to suddenly appear on the market, it may look like the age of the good old fashioned physical book that contains word and pictures on paper pages and sandwiched between two hard or soft covers would go the way of the dinosaur, or even the VCR.
Not according to Joe Queenan. He has a devout passion for books. He is particular of what types of books he enjoys reading (his taste in books is, to put it mildly, quite eclectic), and is particular of how he obtains his books and where he purchases them.
One for the Books is Queenan’s no holds barred pontification about the joys of reading quality books, and his growing concern about the future of the book, at a time when one can easily download hundreds of titles into an e-reader.
In his own humble, yet well read opinion, Queenan explores the culture of books and reading books from his own personal perspective, in which he became a voracious reader as an escape from a harsh upbringing in the housing projects of Philadelphia (one of his earliest reading habits was those unforgettable “Classics Illustrated” comic books). From there, he continues along with an expansive exploration of different aspects of reading and reading culture, from what makes up his passion for reading to what makes him frustrated.
There’s his frustration about how libraries are getting way too security-conscious; his lament on the decline of the independent mom-and-pop bookstore (and his antipathy towards the large bookstore chains); his aversion to owning rare first editions from the 19th and early 20 centuries; how he mistrusts book recommendations from other people (especially from those who try to lend him their copies); how a cover illustration becomes a determining factor towards whether he will read a certain title or not (case in point, the three separate editions he owns of Huckleberry Finn); and the never ending quest to read – and finish – the desired literary works that constantly pile up on his night table (especially his ongoing futile quest to finish George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch).
Perhaps one of the funniest barbs in this book is the one Queenan offers about the insincere ringing brief endorsements that you find on the front or back cover of a book, especially by those capsule reviewers who try too hard to sound so literary. The best example of this was the endorsement of the book Runaway by recent Nobel laureate Alice Munro, in which the endorser in question said it was like “a big dish of Beluga caviar, sailing in on a sparkling bed of rice, with a mother-of-pearl spoon.” Not only does Queenan feel that such laudatory blurbs are unacceptable, he warns that “there’s a sinister chumminess to this kind of writing, suggesting that the reviewer may actually be daydreaming about the author in graphic cetacean terms. If I were Alice Munro, I’d add a couple of locks to the door. Dead bolts, in fact.”
I have always enjoyed books about books (The End of Your Life Book Club and Larry McMurtrey’s simply titled literary memoir Books are two of my favorites), because they reach out to those avid readers and true bookworms about what makes reading an honest to goodness paper book so much thrilling and affirming. Queenan does the same thing with One for the Books, but he uses liberal doses of his trademark sarcasm and caustic humour to explore the joy of books and reading. Also, I can readily identify with many of the issues that he raises, because I have personally experienced them. I have also mourned the closing of many independent, family-owned bookstores in Montreal (Russell Books and Lee-Mar Gift and Book Store, to name but two), I also have an aversion to buying and owning dusty, faded first editions from a century ago (although I almost changed my mind four years ago, when I was allowed to leaf through the original 1886 edition of Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs at Bauman’s Rare Books in Vegas); and yes, I have also withstood several epic struggles to try and finish reading some desired tomes (including three failed attempts to read the first volume of Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War).
One for the Books is a book that speaks for the hardcore bibliophile. Joe Queenan has become the symbol for those who still appreciate a good book in the manner it’s supposed to be enjoyed. It shows that books continue to play a vital role when it comes to entertaining, informing and enlightening people who bother to take the time and crack a spine. Hail, Joe Queenan!
…And hopefully, someday, he will finally finish reading Middlemarch.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at email@example.com.